July 3, 2009
In early fall 2003, as the scandal over leaking a covert CIA officer's identity was exploding, President George W. Bush claimed not to know anything about the leak and called on anyone in his administration who had knowledge to come "forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true."
Though the Obama administration continues to balk at releasing the full contents of the Cheney interview, it did reveal that Bush and Cheney were in contact about the scandal, including what is described as "a confidential conversation" and "an apparent communication between the Vice President and the President."
The filing in a federal court case also makes clear that Cheney was at the center of White House machinations rebutting criticism from former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who charged in summer 2003 that the Bush administration had "twisted" intelligence to justify invading Iraq in March 2003. While seeking to discredit Wilson, administration officials disclosed to reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA.
Bush and his subordinates then sought to deny a White House hand in the leak. White House press secretary Scott McClellan later apologized for his role in the deception in his 2008 book, What Happened, saying that Bush and four other high-ranking officials caused him to lie to the public in clearing Bush's political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis Libby of any responsibility for the Plame leak.
Eventually, the cover-up led to the prosecution of Libby, who was found guilty in 2007 of four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, but Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence.
When Fitzgerald's investigation came to a close with only that one prosecution, questions were raised about his reasoning for not bringing legal action against Bush, Cheney or other senior officials implicated in the leak and cover-up. Those questions led to congressional requests for the Bush-Cheney interviews and to the current Freedom of Information court case.
In its new court filing, the Obama administration opposed release of the Cheney interview, but described the topics discussed. Besides the contacts with Bush, the filing referenced Cheney's questions to the CIA about its decision to send Wilson to Africa in 2002 to investigate "" and ultimately refute "" suspicions that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium from the African country of Niger.
Cheney also was asked about his role in arranging a statement by then-CIA Director George Tenet taking responsibility for including a misleading claim about the African uranium in Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, and Cheney's discussions with Libby and other White House officials about how to respond to inquiries regarding the leak of Plame's identity, the court filing said.
Fitzgerald also questioned Cheney about his participation in the decision to declassify parts of a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq's alleged WMD. It ultimately fell to Bush to clear selected parts of the NIE so they could be leaked as part of the White House campaign to disparage Wilson.
A public interest group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is seeking access to Fitzgerald's interview with Cheney under the Freedom of Information Act and now has confronted refusals from both the Bush administration and the Obama administration.
In the CIA leak case, Justice Department lawyers claimed that disclosing Cheney's interview might discourage future government officials from cooperating with criminal inquiries.
"In any such investigation, it will be important that White House officials be able to provide law enforcement officials with a full account of relevant events," said Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the criminal division.