To the Teacher:
The indictment, trial, and conviction of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, following a 22-month investigation by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, was about high-level lying and obstruction of justice. But it was also about more than the outing of a covert CIA agent, and these issues are likely to be the focus of intensive media attention for the indefinite future.
The two student readings below detail the background for the case, the charges against Libby, the reasons for them, and a number of questions raised by the Fitzgerald investigation. Following the readings are suggestions for student discussion and continuing attention to future developments.
Because the Libby case raises questions about how the Bush administration explained the rationale for the Iraq war, you may find other materials on this site useful. Among them:
- "Presidential Election 2004: The Iraq Issue" deals with public understanding of the reasons for the war and administration statements about them
- "Inaccurate Intelligence, Critical Thinking, the Bush Administration and Iraq" focuses on the Senate Intelligence Committee's critique of the performance of U. S. intelligence agencies"
- "A Sourcebook and Study Guide for High School and College Classrooms: Torture and War Crimes: The U.S. Record in Documents" offers considerable factual detail on what administration officials have said about the treatment of war prisoners and what documents reveal about that treatment.
The Missing Uranium Sale, the CIA Agent, and the Libby Indictment
Some Key Quotes
"We know with absolute certainty that Saddam is using his technical and commercial capacities to acquire the material necessary to enrich uranium to build nuclear weapons."
—Vice President Cheney, "Meet the Press," NBC, 2002
"There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam Hussein] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
— Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor, CNN, 9/8/02
"The Iraqi attempt to acquire uranium is proof of its nuclear ambitions."
—Secretary of State Colin Powell, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, 9/26/02
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
—President George Bush, 1/28/03, State of the Union address
"My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources....Saddam Hussein already possesses two out of three key components needed to build a nuclear bomb."
—Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2/5/03, speech to Security Council of the United Nations
"And we believe he [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
—Vice President Dick Cheney, 3/16/03, NBC, Meet the Press
Student Reading 1
In February 2002 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asked Joseph Wilson, a foreign service officer and an ambassador with much experience in Africa, to go to the African nation of Niger. His mission: to check out intelligence that between 1999 and 2000, Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger for use in making nuclear bombs. This assignment came at a time when the Bush administration was voicing serious concern that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, so the accuracy of such reports was important to confirm.
Wilson arrived in Niger that same month and met with U.S. ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick, who said "she felt she had already debunked them [reports of the uranium sale] to Washington." He also met with dozens of current and former government officials as well as members of a consortium from France, Spain, Japan, Germany, and Niger who operated two uranium mines in the African nation.
Any removal of uranium from those mines required notification to those consortium members, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Niger's minister of mines, and its prime minister. None of these officials confirmed the CIA intelligence. Wilson returned to the U.S. and reported to the CIA and the State Department's African Affairs Bureau that it was "highly doubtful" that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. After documents associated with the reputed sale turned up later in 2002, officials from both Niger and Iraq denied their accuracy.
In January 2003, President Bush made ominous remarks about Iraq's nuclear weapons program in his State of the Union address. In February, his administration sent copies of the documents about Iraq''s alleged purchase of Niger uranium to the IAEA for its examination and opinion.
On March 7 the IAEA told the UN Security Council that the uranium sale documents were bogus. No Bush administration official disputed the IAEA findings. The IAEA also declared after weeks of inspections in Iraq that it had found no evidence of nuclear weapons work in that country. This did not prevent Vice President Cheney from insisting on March 16 that Iraq had "reconstituted nuclear weapons."
Because Bush administration officials were ignoring his Niger report, Wilson decided more than a year after his Niger trip to go public about it in an op-ed article, "What I Didn't Find in Africa," published by the New York Times on July 6, 2003.
"Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?" Wilson asked as he began his account of what he had learned in Niger. "Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
The Wilson article appeared more than two months after President Bush had declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq. An American search team had produced no evidence of a nuclear weapons program or any chemical or biological weapons of mass destructionóthe main reason Bush had given for the war.
A week after Wilson's article appeared in the New York Times, Robert Novak wrote in his syndicated column that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame (her family's name), is "an agency operative [of the CIA] on weapons of mass destruction." He added, "Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger." (7/14/03)
The Novak revelations created a media uproar. Time magazine suggested that Bush administration officials had "declared war" on Wilson. Novak said his information came from "two senior administration officials." Why had they provided it? No senior Bush administration official has explained whyónor are they unlikely to.
The Novak revelations also created a demand for an official investigation. Who was responsible for the potentially criminal act of revealing the name of an undercover CIA agent, ruining her career and possibly endangering lives? Novak refused to comment publicly on his source. The Department of Justice appointed a special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, to open an inquiry. A grand jury was impaneled to consider the evidence and determine if charges should be brought. President Bush pledged on 6/10/04 to fire anyone involved in revealing the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson.
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why was Joseph Wilson sent to Niger? What conclusions did he draw from his investigation about a reported effort by Iraq to buy uranium from Niger? Why?
3. During the period after Wilson's report to the CIA and the State Department, what were leading Bush administration officials saying about Iraq and nuclear weapons?
4. Why did Wilson decide to write an article about his findings for the New York Times?
5. How do you interpret the significance of Robert Novak's report about Wilson in his syndicated column?
6. How would you explain why a Bush administration official would have leaked the name of Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife, to Novak?
7. What was the reason for the appointment of a special counsel and a grand jury? What do you understand to be the role of each?
Student Reading 2
The Indictment, Trial & Conviction
Nearly two years after special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald began his investigation, he announced on October 28, 2005, a five-count indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff. The indictment included two counts of making false statements to FBI agents and two counts of perjury--lying under oath--before a grand jury. Both counts accuse Libby of falsifying his conversations with reporters. One count of obstruction of justice states that Libby "did knowingly and corruptly endeavor to influence, obstruct and impede the due administration of justice" by "misleading and deceiving the grand jury as to when and the manner and means by which, Libby acquired and subsequently disclosed to the media information concerning the employment of Valerie Wilson by the CIA."
Libby claimed that he learned from reporters about Joseph Wilson's wife. The indictment says the reverse is true--that he told reporters Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine about Valerie Plame Wilson.
Why, then, did the special prosecutor not indict Libby for outing her?
Fitzgerald explained in an interview with the media after announcing the indictments. "You need to know at the time that he transmitted the information he appreciated that it was classified information." In short, Libby's revealing of Plame's identity would only be a crime if Libby knew at the time that Plame's covert status at the CIA required secrecy for national security reasons. While the special counsel may think that Libby did know Plame's identity was classified, he does not think he can prove it under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Nor does he have the evidence, at least yet, for charging some other official with that crime.
In his answers to media questions, Fitzgerald also emphasized that:
- Libby's lying and obstruction of justice kept the grand jury from learning the truth about who outed Valerie Plame Wilson. Therefore, Libby's repeated efforts to mislead investigators and the grand jury were serious crimes because "truth is the engine of our judicial system."
- Fitzgerald's job as special counsel is to investigate the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the case and to comment on the details of the indictment, nothing else.
- The rules of his investigation and the laws that he operates under prohibit him from commenting on who else besides Lewis Libby might have been involved in revealing Plame's identity..
- In the United States, the rule of law is vital. Fitzgerald said, "when a vice president's chief of staff is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, it does show the world that this is a country that takes its law seriously; that all citizens are bound by the law."
Upon being indicted, Libby resigned his position with the vice president but declared, "I am confident that at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated." He faces up to 30 years in prison and a fine of $1.25 million. If his case goes to trial, it will probably include testimony by the vice president and other key officials. Both Vice President Cheney and President Bush expressed their sorrow over Libby's resignation, but praised him highly for his service to the nation. The vice president called him "one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known."
In his job as chief of staff for the vice president, Libby was a member of the White House Iraq Group, which helped to plan the Iraq war and to publicize the reasons for it. He met frequently with reporters for interviews and was also available to them by telephone. In January 2003, he and another Cheney aide were the main writers of a draft speech for Secretary of State Powell's presentation to the United Nations on the Bush administration's case for war against Iraq. But Powell rejected most of it as exaggerated and delivered another version, most of which also proved to be inaccurate.
According to the indictment, Libby learned who Wilson's wife was from various sources, including vice president Cheney on June 12, 2003 (before Joseph Wilson's article was published). The vice president's office then became the center of efforts by a number of aides to learn more about Wilson. The indictment cites a discussion involving, Cheney, Libby, and other vice presidential aides aboard a July 12, 2003, flight from Norfolk, Virginia. Libby allegedly "discussed with other officials aboard the plane" what he should say to reporters regarding "certain pending media inquiries." That included the questions of Matthew Cooper of Time magazine. This charge raises questions about the vice president's role in the Valerie Plame affair--as well as other questions that the special counsel cannot, by law, answer. Among the unanswered questions:
1. Why were Bush administration officials so concerned about Wilson's Niger report? If they had good reason for believing that Iraq was seeking uranium for a nuclear program, why didn't they make them public?
2. What, if anything, did Vice President Cheney know about the allegedly criminal behavior taking place in his office? Will he explain his behavior publicly? If not, why not? Did Libby lie to protect his boss?
3. Did the Bush administration mislead the people of the United States and Congress about its reasons for the war on Iraq? If so, how and why?
4. The Senate Intelligence Committee investigated in detail faulty U.S. intelligence about Iraq and reported on it publicly. Why hasn't the Senate Intelligence Committee followed up this inquiry with another on how the Bush administration handled intelligence before the Iraq war, as its chairman, Senator Pat Roberts (Republican, Kansas) promised it would after the 2004 presidential election?
Fitzgerald said his investigation "is not over," but did not say whether he might seek more indictments. His statements did not resolve possible charges against Karl Rove, the president's senior advisor, political strategist and deputy chief of staff. The indictment of Libby refers to "Official A," whose behavior in providing Robert Novak with information about CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson is a serious criminal offense. It remains to be seen whether this official of the Bush administration--Rove's name has been repeatedly suggested--will be named and charged. (In his testimony before the grand jury, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper said that Rove was the first person to tell him that Valerie Plame was a CIA officer and that she had played a role in sending Joseph Wilson to Niger. Rove himself was called repeatedly to testify before the grand jury.)
Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee and the manager of President Bush's 2004 campaign, said, "Mr. Libby is entitled to his day in court to answer the charges against him, receive a full airing of all the facts and is innocent until proven otherwise."
Democratic leader Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said, "This case is bigger than the leak of highly classified information. It is about how the Bush White House manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to bolster its case for the war in Iraq and to discredit anyone who dared to challenge the president."
TRIAL & CONVICTION
Libby was found guilty on March 6, 2007, on two counts of perjury for testifying falsely before a grand jury, one count for lying to the FBI, and one count for obstruction of justice. The jury found him not guilty on one other count of lying to the FBI.
In the trial, the prosecution argued that Libby tried to cover up his role in a Bush administration effort to leak Plame's identification to the media. This effort was intended to punish and discredit her husband, Joseph Wilson, because he had written an op-ed in the New York Times challenging the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had a growing stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Libby's defense lawyers argued that Libby intended no deception, but that because he had a very important position and was a very busy man, his memory had failed him when he had responded to the grand jury and the FBI.
After the jury's verdict, Libby's lawyers announced that they would seek a new trial and that if that effort was unsuccessful, they would appeal the jury's verdict to a higher court.
Prosecutor Fitzgerald announced that he intended no additional indictments unless he received new information that called for them.
Wilson and Plame have filed a civil suit against Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, and Lewis Libby for conspiring "to discredit, punish and seek revenge" against Wilson for his op-ed criticizing the president for using intelligence that was "twisted to exaggerate the Iraq threat." The suit also charges the three with "gross invasion of privacy," especially for their role in making public Plame's secret position with the CIA.
1. What questions do students have about Part Two of the reading? How might they be answered?
2. The obstruction of justice charge against Libby boils down to his lying to FBI agents and the grand jury about his conversations with reporters. Why does Fitzgerald regard the lying as serious crimes?
3. Why is it a crime for a person to reveal the name of someone they know is a classified CIA agent? Why hasn't Fitzgerald charged anyone with that crime?
4. In all of his comments Fitzgerald shows great respect for the rules that govern his investigation and the rule of law that governs citizens of the United States. Why do you think he think he regards these rules and the rule of law so highly?
5. What is your opinion of the remarks made by Republican and Democratic leaders about Libby's case? Why?
6. Based on what you know of the Libby case, do you agree with the guilty verdict? Why or why not? If you don't think you know enough to make a judgment, where might you find more information?
For small-group discussion
Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Assign any of the student questions in the text of Part Two for a microlab. Make sure that each group understands the question they are assigned to answer. In a microlab, each student, in turn, has the opportunity to respond to the question, if he or she wishes, within a specific time limit-perhaps 45 seconds. No interruptions are allowed.
Following the microlab, ask for responses from each group about its assigned question. Then open up the issue for class discussion.
For future discussions
There are likely to be additional developments and revelations in the Libby case. You might encourage students to keep informed about them by assigning students to present weekly reports based on a range of media resources--newspaper, radio, TV, and the internet. Rotating groups of four to six students might be responsible for such reports, for generating the best questions they can about them, and for leading class discussions.
Major scandals and cover-ups have marred previous administrations, among them:
- President Lyndon Johnson, 1960s, rationale for the Vietnam War
- President Richard Nixon, 1970s, Watergate
- President Ronald Reagan, 1980s, Iran-Contra
- President Bill Clinton, 1990s, Whitewater/Lewinsky
All offer opportunities for student inquiries and comparisons with the Libby case.
This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:firstname.lastname@example.org.