Bush Critic Became Target of Libby, Former Aides Say
Cheney's chief of staff reportedly sought an aggressive campaign
By Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger
Times Staff Writers
Angeles Times" -- -- WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick
Cheney's chief of staff was so angry about the public statements of
former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a Bush administration critic
married to an undercover CIA officer, that he monitored all of
Wilson's television appearances and urged the White House to mount
an aggressive public campaign against him, former aides say.
Those efforts by the chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, began
shortly after Wilson went public with his criticisms in 2003. But
they continued into last year — well after the Justice Department
began an investigation in September 2003, into whether
administration officials had illegally disclosed the CIA operative's
identity, say former White House aides.
While other administration officials were maintaining a careful
distance from Wilson in 2004, Libby ordered up a compendium of
information that could be used to rebut Wilson's claims that the
administration had "twisted" intelligence to exaggerate the threat
from Iraq before the U.S. invasion.
Libby pressed the administration to publicly counter Wilson,
sparking a debate with other White House officials who thought the
tactic would call more attention to the former diplomat and his
criticisms. That debate ended after an April 2004 meeting in the
office of White House Communications Director Daniel Bartlett, when
staffers were told "don't engage" Wilson, according to notes taken
during the meeting by one person present.
"Scooter had a plan to counter Wilson and a passionate desire to do
so," said a second person, a former White House official familiar
with the internal deliberations. Like other former White House
staff, this person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the
ongoing criminal investigation.
Libby's actions and those of top White House political advisor Karl
Rove are being scrutinized as special prosecutor Patrick J.
Fitzgerald concludes his 22-month investigation into the exposure of
Wilson's wife, covert CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Fitzgerald is examining whether Plame's name was leaked to the media
by administration officials in violation of a federal law that
prohibits knowingly disclosing the identity of a covert agent.
Libby's anger over Wilson's 2003 charges has been known. But new
interviews and documents obtained by The Times provide a more
detailed view of the depth and duration of Libby's interest in
Wilson. They also show that the vice president's office closely
monitored news coverage.
On one occasion, the office prohibited a reporter from traveling
with Cheney aboard Air Force Two, because the vice president's
daughter said Cheney was unhappy with that newspaper's coverage.
Libby "would see something had appeared in the newspaper or on
television and wanted to use the White House operation to counter
it," one former official said.
After Wilson published a book criticizing the administration in
April 2004, during the closely fought presidential campaign, Libby
became consumed by passages that he believed were inaccurate or
unfair to Cheney, former aides said. He ordered up a meticulous
catalog of Wilson's claims and public statements going back to early
The result was a packet that included excerpts from press clips and
television transcripts of Wilson's statements that were divided into
categories, such as "political ties" or "WMD."
The compendium used boldfaced type to call attention to certain
comments by Wilson, such as one in the Daily Iowan, the University
of Iowa student newspaper, in which Wilson was quoted as calling
Cheney "a lying son of a bitch." It also highlighted Wilson's
answers to questions from television journalists about his work with
Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.
The intensity with which Libby reacted to Wilson had many senior
White House staffers puzzled, and few agreed with his counterattack
plan or its rationale, former aides said.
Though the White House did not respond to Wilson's claims, the
Republican National Committee did strike back with a series of press
releases attacking his credibility.
One prominent former Cheney aide defended Libby on Thursday, saying
he was zealous and passionate about everything he worked on — not
just the Wilson episode.
"Scooter is the most methodical, detail-oriented and comprehensive
worker of anybody I've ever worked with in my life," said Mary
Matalin, a former Cheney advisor who worked as a consultant on the
"He leaves no stone unturned, and it doesn't matter what the topic
is," she said. "That's the nature of Scooter, and that's why he's
such a superior intellect and why Cheney and the president and
everybody over there respects him."
Wilson, reached by telephone while on a speaking tour in California,
said Thursday that he was outraged by the extent of the White House
effort to track and counter his statements.
"What an abuse of power," Wilson said. "What the hell are they doing
using taxpayer funded employees to root around and find information
Libby's intense interest in Wilson may help explain why he has
become a focus in the federal investigation into who leaked Valerie
The case had its origins in early 2002, when Cheney asked the CIA
for information on reports that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium
yellowcake from the African nation of Niger.
In response to Cheney's queries, the CIA decided to send Wilson, who
had served in the region and was familiar with the uranium trade, to
investigate. Wilson's wife was working undercover for the CIA on
weapons issues at the time.
On his trip to Niger, Wilson found little reason to believe the
Iraqis had sought the uranium, and on his return reported his
findings to CIA officials.
In January 2003, President Bush in his State of the Union address
cited Iraq's interest in African uranium as a sign of President
Saddam Hussein's interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. In July,
Wilson penned an op-ed piece for the New York Times describing his
findings and suggesting that the president had distorted
intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq.
Within days, administration officials were telling reporters that
Wilson had been sent to Niger as a boondoggle arranged by his wife,
who worked at the CIA. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak published
her name on July 14.
It can be a felony to knowingly leak the identity of a covert agent,
and in late 2003 the Justice Department appointed Fitzgerald to
investigate. Fitzgerald is nearing the end of his inquiry into the
leak and has focused on Rove and Libby, among others.
Rove and Libby have both reportedly testified that they learned
about Plame from others, did not know she had covert status and did
not reveal her name to reporters. The White House and a lawyer for
Libby declined to comment Thursday.
The documents and interviews portray Libby as highly attuned to
detail. He dictated the format for internal memos, including that
paragraphs be indented.
The documents and interviews show that, when it came to monitoring
media coverage of Wilson and other issues affecting the vice
president's reputation, Libby was meticulous. Staffers were
instructed to use Nexis and Google to watch even the most obscure
The sensitivity extended in at least one case to the vice
president's daughter, Liz Cheney, who worked as a campaign advisor.
During a time of tension between the New York Times and the campaign
over coverage, aides recommended that a reporter from the paper be
allowed to fly aboard Cheney's plane with others in the press corps.
Liz Cheney had a different idea.
Writing from her Blackberry, a mobile e-mail device, she noted that
her father was upset with a story that appeared in that morning's
newspaper, saying: "vp has totally had it with nytimes. This is
really not the right time to ask him to charm a reporter from that
The reporter was excluded from the vice president's plane.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
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