Updated Nov. 23, 2007
On Tuesday, an excerpt from former Bush Press Sec. Scott McClellan’s upcoming book was released in which he accused George Bush, Dick Cheney and their three top advisors of conspiring to cover up their roles in the leaking of the covert identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson.
Martha Stewart went to jail for lying to federal investigators even though she was not under oath at the time. Scooter Libby was found guilty of one count of lying to the feds but, of course, Bush commuted his sentence and will pardon him late next year.
In the excerpt from his book, “What Happened,” McClellan wrote that he had “unknowingly passed along false information” that had exonerated Bush political operator Karl Rove and Cheney henchman Scooter Libby as sources of the leak of Agent Wilson’s secret identity, and that “five of the highest ranking officials in the administration … Rove, Libby, [Cheney], [Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card], and [Bush] himself” had been involved in the conspiracy to deceive the public about the plot to forfeit Agent Wilson and her covert international assets in tracking terrorist sales of weapons of mass destruction.
Deceiving the public is par for the course with these guys but deceiving federal investigators is quite another matter. In fact, lying to the feds is a criminal act, even when the person being interviewed is not under oath.
To cite one recent example of this, in March 2004 Martha Stewart was sentenced to five months in federal prison for, among other charges, making false statements to federal investigators. Another more salient example: In October 2005, Scooter Libby was charged with two counts of making false statements when interviewed by agents of the FBI, along with one count of obstruction of justice and two counts of perjury in testimony to a federal grand jury.
The criminality of lying to investigators could come into play now if McClellan’s version of what Bush’s role in the apparent conspiracy differs from what Bush told U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald during an Oval Office “interview” — not under oath — on the morning of June 24, 2004, 11 months after Novak betrayed Agent Wilson’s identity.
At first, details of Bush’s answers to Fitzgerald’s questions that morning were tightly embargoed. Around noon that day, McClellan surprised the White House press gaggle with news that George Bush had been interviewed that morning by Fitzgerald, but as was his habit, McClellan gave them very little actual information about the interview:
MR. McCLELLAN: The President met with Pat Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in charge of the leak investigation, as well as members of his team. The meeting took place in the Oval Office. It lasted for a little more than an hour, probably about an hour and 10 minutes …
[Bush] also recently retained a lawyer, Jim Sharp, who you all have reported about before.
I would just say that — what I’ve said previously, and what the President has said: The leaking of classified information is a very serious matter. The President directed the White House to cooperate fully with those in charge of the investigation. He was pleased to do his part to help the investigation move forward. No one wants to get to the bottom of this matter more than the President of the United States, and he has said on more than one occasion that if anyone — inside or outside the government — has information that can help the investigators get to the bottom of this, they should provide that information to the officials in charge.
And I think because this is an ongoing investigation that further questions are best directed to the officials in charge of the investigation.
Over the next 12 minutes, Scott repeated some variation of this statement 14 times:
Well, this is an ongoing investigation, John, and I’m going to direct further questions to the officials in charge of the investigation.
It wasn’t until two years later, in July 2006, that we learned — from Murray Waas reporting in the National Journal — the substance of what Bush told the feds that morning:
President Bush told the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case that he directed [Cheney] to personally lead an effort to counter allegations made by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV that his administration had misrepresented intelligence information to make the case to go to war with Iraq, according to people familiar with the president’s interview.
Bush also told federal prosecutors … that he had directed Cheney, as part of that broader effort, to disclose highly classified intelligence information that would not only defend his administration but also discredit Wilson, the sources said.
But Bush told investigators that he was unaware that Cheney had directed [Libby] to covertly leak the classified information to the media instead of releasing it to the public after undergoing the formal governmental declassification processes.
Bush also said during his interview with prosecutors that he had never directed anyone to disclose the identity of then-covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife. Bush said he had no information that Cheney had disclosed Plame’s identity or directed anyone else to do so. [Emphasis added.]
The accusation by McClellan in his book excerpt that Bush was involved in the conspiracy calls that last assertion by Bush to the feds into question.
What Did Bush Know, When Did He Know it?
In the wake of McClellan’s accusations, a familiar question has arisen: What did the president know and when did he know it?
This question, which was first asked by Republican Sen. Howard Baker about Pres. Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal in the 1970s (and was repeated this week by both former Nixon White House counsel John Dean on MSNBC’s “Countdown” show and by Chris Matthews on his MSNBC show in relation to McClellan’s accusations) could become critical again now if the rest of McClellan’s version of events points to more hands-on involvement in the plot against Agent Wilson than Bush has previously admitted.
From the outset of this scandal, the Bush team has propounded a scenario that, despite the fact that it is extremely hard to believe, has routinely been accepted by the media: This is the idea that Bush was just as startled and outraged by the leaking of Agent Wilson’s identity as the rest of us.
The CIA Leak scandal erupted when rightwing propagandist Bob Novak published Agent Wilson’s name in his column on July 14, 2003. If Bush did not know who leaked the Wilson’s identity to Novak on the morning the story broke, logic dictates — even requires — that within hours, if not minutes, his chief of staff, Andrew Card, had gotten to the bottom of it and reported back the full details.
By lunchtime on that July 14, George Bush had to have had the full story — unless 1) the conspirators, including Bush, decided among themselves to withhold details from Bush in order to give him “plausible deniability.” Or 2) he already knew, and had been in on the plot from the beginning.
If there was a conspiracy, the motive of these conspirators was, obviously, to hide something. Indeed, obfuscating Bush’s knowledge of and involvement in the plot to out Agent Wilson was precisely the point of the conspiracy.
Other than protecting the president from impeachment — or at least from fatally damaging his prospects for reelection that fall — what other motivation could these five powerful men have had in going to the extremes they took to deceive the public and, quite probably, federal investigators working for Patrick Fitzgerald?
An Implicit Threat from Cheney to Bush
Among the circumstantial evidence that Bush was involved in the plotting is a cryptic note from Cheney that was introduced into evidence during Libby’s trial. The very existence of the note is strange because Cheney is famous for rarely writing anything down lest it come back as evidence against him later.
The note was written in the fall of 2003 after McClellan had exonerated Karl Rove as the leaker of Agent Wilson’s identity on two separate occasions from the White House press room podium.
This exoneration apparently did not sit at all well with Libby, at whose behest Cheney wrote the note in question to McClellan ordering him to give Libby that same public cleansing. In part, Cheney’s note read:
“Not going to protect one staffer & sacrifice the guy this Pres. [but "this Pres." is struck through and replaced with "that was"] that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.”
It is impossible to parse the strike-through of “this Pres.” as anything but a shot across the bow at Bush from Cheney.
It also brings up a couple of questions: Why was Libby asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder by “this Pres.” or anyone else? And whose incompetence led to Libby being put in that predicament.
Here’s how Libby’s attorney presented the note while taking testimony from Cheney’s then-attorney and now chief of staff, David Addington, during Libby’s trial in January 2007:
…Libby’s attorney Theodore Wells made a stunning pronouncement during opening statements of Libby’s trial. He claimed that the White House had made Libby a scapegoat for the leak to protect Karl Rove — Bush’s political adviser and “right-hand man.”
“Mr. Libby, you will learn, went to the vice president of the United States and met with the vice president in private. Mr. Libby said to the vice president, ‘I think the White House … is trying to set me up. People in the White House want me to be a scapegoat,'” said Wells.
Cheney’s notes seem to help bolster Wells’s defense strategy. Libby’s defense team first discussed the notes — written by Cheney in September 2003 for White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan — during opening statements last week. Wells said Cheney had written “not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others”: a reference to Libby being asked to deal with the media and vociferously rebut Wilson’s allegations that the Bush administration knowingly “twisted” intelligence to win support for the war in Iraq.
However, when Cheney wrote the notes, he had originally written “this Pres.” instead of “that was.”
During cross-examination Tuesday morning, David Addington was asked specific questions about Cheney’s notes and the reference to President Bush. Addington, former counsel to the vice president, was named Cheney’s chief of staff – a position Libby had held before resigning.
“Can you make out what’s crossed out, Mr. Addington?” Wells asked, according to a copy of the transcript of Tuesday’s court proceedings.
“It says ‘the guy’ and then it says, ‘this Pres.’ and then that is scratched through,” Addington said.
“OK,” Wells said. “Let’s start again. ‘Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy …’ and then what’s scratched through?” Wells asked Addington again, attempting to establish that Cheney had originally written that President Bush personally asked Libby to beat back Wilson’s criticisms.
“T-h-i-s space P-r-e-s,” Addington said, spelling out the words. “And then it’s got a scratch-through.”
“So it looks like ‘this Pres.?'” Wells asked again.
“Yes sir,” Addington said.
Thus, Cheney’s notes would have read “not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy this Pres. asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.” The words “this Pres.” were crossed out and replaced with “that was,” but are still clearly legible in the document.
The reference to “the meat grinder” was understood to be the Washington press corps, Wells said. The “protect one staffer” reference, Wells said, was White House Political Adviser Karl Rove, whose own role in the leak and the attacks on Wilson are well documented.
Furthermore, Cheney, in his directive to McClellan that day in September 2003, wrote that the White House spokesman needed to immediately “call out to key press saying the same thing about Scooter as Karl.”
The threat to Bush behind Cheney’s words is palpable. The fact that he let the strike-through of “this Pres” stand in the note he sent to McClellan — and thus for Rove and even Bush to see — says that if his guy Libby is taken down, and Cheney himself is thus left vulnerable, Bush would go down too.
The Precedent for Impeachment on Obstruction of Justice
Millions of Americans across the political spectrum have demanded the impeachment of Bush and Cheney for lying about the reasons they took the country to war. But proving these charges would be impossible because the most important evidence against them, the intelligence that was the basis of their war planning, is secret.
On the other hand, if McClellan’s charges hold up, there is a famous precedent for impeachment on charges of obstructing justice. On March 1, 1974, Nixon’s henchmen, known as the Watergate Seven — U.S. Attorney Gen. John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Asst. to the President John Ehrlichman, White House Chief Counsel Charles Colson, Haldeman’s aide Gordon C. Strachan, GOP political operative Robert Mardian and Nixon reelection campaign counsel Kenneth Parkinson — were indicted for conspiring to hinder the investigation of Watergate.
In late July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment against Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. On the evening of August 8, Nixon announced that he would resign the following day.
If today’s “West Wing Five” conspired to obstruct justice in the CIA Leak scandal, as McClellan charges, it’s hard to see any reason impeachment would not have to come off Speaker Pelosi’s table.
Walking It Back
On Wednesday, predictably, McClellan’s publisher, Peter Osnos of PublicAffairs Books, tried walk back the most damaging charge in the excerpt — that Bush was in on the conspiracy to forfeit Agent Wilson.
Osnos told MSNBC that Bush misled Scott because Bush had also been deceived and that while Bush did pass along false information, he did so in good faith. Osnos also told Chris Matthews that Scott was not going to rat Bush out on his role in the CIA leak scandal. (He also exonerated Bush’s then-Chief of Staff Andrew Card.)
Conversely, and quite pointedly, Osnos also said McClellan would not clear Cheney, Rove or Libby of wrongdoing — that he would “leave it to the reader to decide” whether or not those powerful men had engaged in a criminal conspiracy.
But leaving it to readers is simply not sufficient, as others have pointed out.
The House and Senate judiciary committees should subpoena McClellan’s manuscript right away, before it can be tampered with, and then haul Scott in to testify in open committee under oath about what Bush told him about the leak and its subsequent cover-up.
And Fitzgerald must be compelled to release all the transcripts and notes he took during his interviews with Bush and Cheney.
Of all the evidence of criminality in this case, the starkest is the disposition of Scooter Libby’s sentence. On March 6, 2007, the jury convicted Libby on four of the five counts against him: two counts of perjury, one count of obstruction of justice in a grand jury investigation, and one of the two counts of making false statements to federal investigators â€“â€“ and acquitted him on one count of making false statements. He was sentenced to 30 months in jail.
But Libby, as a member of the West Wing Five, had intimate knowledge of the depth of involvement by George Bush in the conspiracy to cover up the outing of Agent Wilson. In July 2007, Bush commuted his sentence, and there is no doubt whatsoever that Bush will give Libby a full and complete pardon before he leaves office.
- Section: News & Comment