In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the anti-Wilson scheme got started – since he was involved in starting it – he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House role and possibly to signal to others that they should follow suit in denying knowledge.
That is exactly what key White House officials did. In early October, press secretary McClellan said he had made inquiries and could report that political adviser Karl Rove and National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams were not involved in the Plame leak.
That comment riled Libby, who feared that he was being hung out to dry. Libby went to his boss, Dick Cheney, and complained that “they’re trying to set me up; they want me to be the sacrificial lamb,” Libby’s lawyer Theodore Wells later said.
Cheney scribbled down his feelings in a note to McClellan: “Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy the Pres that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others.” In the note, Cheney initially was ascribing Libby’s sacrifice to Bush but apparently thought better of it, crossing out “the Pres” and putting the clause in a passive tense.
On Oct. 4, 2003, McClellan added Libby to the list of officials who have “assured me that they were not involved in this.”
So, Libby had a motive to lie to the FBI when he was first interviewed about the case. He had gone to the mat with his boss to get his name cleared in the press, meaning it would make little sense to then admit involvement to FBI investigators.
“The White House had staked its credibility on there being no White House involvement in the leaking of information about Ms. Wilson,” a federal court filing later noted. For his part, Libby began claiming that he had first learned about Plame’s CIA identity from NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert after Wilson’s Op-Ed had appeared.
This White House cover-up might have worked, except in late 2003, Ashcroft recused himself because of a conflict of interest, and Patrick Fitzgerald – the U.S. Attorney in Chicago – was named as the special prosecutor.
Fitzgerald pursued the investigation far more aggressively, even demanding that journalists testify about the White House leaks.
Still, from 2003 to 2005, as the Plame-gate case grew into a political embarrassment for Bush, Republican operatives and their right-wing media allies continued to attack Wilson, sometimes joined by mainstream publications like the editorial page of The Washington Post.
Rather than thank Wilson for undertaking a difficult fact-finding trip to Niger for no pay – and for reporting accurately about the dubious Iraq-Niger claims – the Bush administration and its allies were unrelenting in tearing down the former ambassador.
The Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee made derogatory claims about Wilson’s honesty in a report issued about the WMD controversy on July 7, 2004.
Contradicting Wilson’s assertion that he had found no evidence of an Iraqi-Niger uranium deal, the committee report said that “for most [intelligence] analysts, the information in the [Wilson] report lent more credibility to the original CIA reports on the uranium deal.”
That was a reference to the comment by former Prime Minister Mayaki that he had thought an Iraqi delegation might have been interested in yellowcake, although the topic was never raised and no negotiations were ever held.