Today's New York Times successfully clarifies some of the new information Prosecutor Fitzgerald released last week about the genesis of Scooter Libby's notorious conversation with Judith Miller, which I analyzed at length last October.
Last week we learned that Libby told the Grand Jury that he spoke to Miller to give her the gist of a prewar National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq at the behest of Vice President Cheney, who in turn had gotten a go-ahead from President Bush. Scott McClellan immediately insisted that the NIE had been declassified by the President and Vice President, even thought he had announced its declassification "today" at a press briefing about a week later. It turns out, however, that that was not the whole story.
The problem, as the Times makes clear, is that what Libby told Miller about the estimate was false. He said that it expressed great confidence in the finding that Saddam had been trying to purchase uranium in Africa--the point that Ambassador Joseph Wilson had just undermined in an op-ed. In fact, the NIE severely qualified that assertion, and based its confidence in Iraq's ongoing nuclear program on the alumuminum tubes story which, we now know, came from the completely discredited source curveball. In other words, Vice President Cheney, if Libby told the truth, didnt' tell Libby to release true information, but rather false information.
Something else, however, emerges from other sources in the Times story. When the Wilson flap and the outing of Valerie Plame occurred, many wondered why Wilson, a retired Ambassador, could have disturbed the Administration so much. It was a friend of mine who first suggested to me that intimidating Wilson wasn't the point of the leak at all. The leak was aimed at the CIA, which the Administration was counting on to back up its claims. Outing a CIA agent was about as intimidating a measure as could be contemplated. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, confirmed to me privately that he believed the CIA was the target of the leak as well.
The new story will undoubtedly be the focus of questions at the next White House press briefing, and McClellan will undoubtedly take refuge once again in refusals to comment on an ongoing investigation. But some one in Congress should speak out about the Administration's whole relationship with the permanent executive branch, which it has ignored, intimidated and muzzled in matters foreign and domestic again and again. As I have pointed out again and again, the current White House focuses above all on controlling the public's image of reality. This is another example of how far it will go.