Amidst new fears about bioterrorism and germ warfare, Vice President Dick Cheney convened a meeting of top advisers in December 2002 to debate whether to resume widespread vaccination of Americans against smallpox.
The impetus for the meeting came in part from recently received intelligence — described a few days earlier in a story by New York Times reporter Judith Miller — that Iraq might have obtained “a particularly virulent form of smallpox” from a Russian lab. Miller attributed the information to “senior administration officials.”
Three years later, Newsweek magazine implied that Miller must have been helped on the story by none other than I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney's chief of staff and a determined hawk — both on Iraq and on germ-warfare issues.
Libby's role as a behind-the-scenes source for the high-profile Times reporter embarrassingly came to light in 2005 in the politically charged investigation of a different leak: the identity of an undercover CIA operative married to a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policies. Miller spent 85 days in jail shielding Libby as a confidential source and later — with Libby's waiver of confidentiality — gave federal grand jury testimony used to indict him on five felony counts of lying, perjury and obstruction of justice.
Libby, who resigned immediately after the Oct. 28, 2005, indictment, was charged with lying to FBI agents and the grand jury when he denied having divulged to Miller and Time magazine's Matt Cooper the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA expert on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Plame's husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson IV, had challenged the administration's prewar claim that Iraq had an ongoing WMD program.
After Wilson went public, news stories quoted unnamed administration officials identifying Plame as an undercover agent, which can be illegal under a 1982 law prohibiting the disclosure of undercover agents' identities. Democratic lawmakers and others accused the administration of revealing Plame's identity as political retaliation. After Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself, Deputy Attorney General James Comey named U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago as special counsel to investigate the leak.
Fitzgerald quickly subpoenaed prominent journalists to identify the administration officials quoted as identifying Plame. For reasons still unexplained as of November 2005, Fitzgerald did not subpoena syndicated columnist Robert Novak — the first to publish Plame's identity in July 2003. A few days later Cooper named Plame in a short item on Time's Web site.
Some of the subpoenaed journalists agreed to testify under some limitations, but Miller — who never wrote a story about Plame — and Cooper resisted testifying, claiming a First Amendment right to shield the identity of a confidential source. They appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Cooper avoided going to jail for contempt of court by agreeing on July 6 to testify after receiving a waiver of confidentiality from his source — who turned out to be Karl Rove, deputy White House chief of staff and Bush's closest political adviser.
Saying she had no similar waiver, Miller stood by her refusal to testify and was ordered jailed. She was released on Sept. 29 after obtaining a full and voluntary waiver of confidentiality from her source, whom she later identified as Libby.
With the immediate mystery solved, reporters, commentators and media-watchers worked overtime for the next few weeks analyzing the roles Libby and Rove played throughout the Bush administration as anonymous sources for news stories. Rove was well known as an adviser and occasional administration spokesman, and his role as a secret source was often obvious. Only after Libby's indictment, however, did news stories clarify that the low-profile Libby had also met frequently with reporters.
The indictment charges that Libby went to some lengths within government channels in May and June 2003 to find out about Plame. He allegedly then discussed Plame in three conversations with Miller in June and July and with Cooper on July 12 — all before the Novak column appeared on July 14.
Libby, who pleaded not guilty at an arraignment on Nov. 3, allegedly told investigators and the grand jury that he had picked up information about Plame from other journalists — including Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief — and passed it along to others as Washington-insider gossip. After the indictment, Russert said he had denied Libby's version of their conversation to the grand jury.
I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Karl Rove (Getty Images (both)
One of Libby's lawyers, Joseph A. Tate, suggested that Libby may rely on a faulty-memory defense in the case. “Mr. Libby testified to the best of his recollection on all occasions,” Tate said on the day of the indictment.
Rove was not indicted but remains under investigation. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan had declared earlier that Rove had not divulged Plame's identity. Fitzgerald subsequently empaneled a new grand jury for the case on Nov. 18, after the belated disclosure that another administration official had disclosed Plame's identity even earlier to Washington Post investigative reporter and author Bob Woodward.
Whatever the final outcome of the so-called Plamegate scandal, a longtime open-government advocate says the case demonstrates the administration's inconsistent attitude toward secrecy.
“Most leak investigations are demanded by the White House,” says Athan Theoharis, a professor of history at Marquette University in Wisconsin. “In this case, it's the White House that is leaking. For an administration that is so committed to secrecy, [it appears] secrecy is something that is fungible, and in some cases it's political.”