Is Libby the Phantom Bigfoot?

An exclusive report from Slate’s guesswork unit.

It’s probably only a matter of seconds before we find out which White House official insisted that the fateful yellowcake reference be inserted into the State of the Union address. We now know for certain somebody did because Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., blabbed on Good Morning, America that CIA Director George Tenet dropped a dime on him (or her) in yesterday’s closed-to-the-public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Hypocritically, Durbin refuses to say who it was, lest he violate the committee mandate for secrecy. Presumably one of the committee’s other Democrats—Rockefeller, Levin, Feinstein, Wyden, Bayh, Edwards, or Mikulski—is even now whispering the name into the ear of an appreciative reporter. Or (more likely) a Senate aide is doing so. After all, there is no national-security rationale for keeping secret the identity of the Phantom Bigfoot. Nevertheless, the White House, unsurprisingly, isn’t talking.

One likely suspect must immediately be crossed off the list: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. On Good Morning, America, Durbin said:

[T]here was this negotiation between the White House and the CIA about just how far you could go and be close to the truth, and unfortunately those sixteen words were included in the most important speech the president delivers in any given year.

Wolfowitz doesn’t work at the White House. He works at the Pentagon. So Wolfowitz can’t be PB.

Vice President Dick Cheney is a very likely PB suspect, having pushed the yellowcake story in particular, and rumors about Iraq’s nuclear capability generally, more aggressively than anyone else in the White House. On July 14, Brian Ross reported on ABC World News Tonight that Cheney “played a key and personal role in pushing CIA analysts to confirm the Niger story.” That jibes with the recollection of former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV,in a July 6 op-ed for the New York Times, that when the CIA sent him to Niger in 2002 to check out the allegation that Iraq had bought yellowcake there, it was because “Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had questions.”

But Durbin’s dance of the seven veils seems to suggest it wasn’t Cheney. Chatterbox deduces this from Durbin’s response to Tenet’s offer to resign (which Tenet has to know was rendered moot when he fingered PB). “The more important question,” Durbin said, “is who is it in the White House who was hell-bent on misleading the American people, and why are they still there?” If PB were Cheney, there’d be a very simple answer to Durbin’s question: He’s still there because, among other reasons, he can’t be fired. He was elected by the Am—er, the Supreme Court, and the only way he can leave is by resigning or getting impeached. Yellowcakegate doesn’t really necessitate so extreme a punishment.

That leaves only one really logical candidate. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, is probably best-known to the public as the Bush official whose former representation of fugitive metals trader Marc Rich caused momentary embarrassment when the departing President Clinton pardoned Rich, provoking an uproar. Libby is a red-meat Iraq hawk who, according to U.S. News & World Report, pushed Secretary of State Colin Powell very hard when Powell was preparing his speech to the U.N. Security Council laying out the evidence against Iraq:

The first draft of Powell’s speech was written by Cheney’s staff and the National Security Council. Days before the team first gathered at the CIA, a group of officials assembled in the White House Situation Room to hear Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, lay out an indictment of the Iraqi regime“a Chinese menu” of charges, one participant recalls, that Powell might use in his U.N. speech. Not everyone in the administration was impressed, however. “It was over the top and ran the gamut from al Qaeda to human rights to weapons of mass destruction,” says a senior official. “They were unsubstantiated assertions, in my view.”Powell, apparently, agreed. So one week before he was to address the U.N. Security Council, he created a team, which set up shop at the CIA, and directed it to provide him with an intelligence report based on more solid information. … The team, at first, tried to follow a 45-page White House script, taken from Libby’s earlier presentation. But there were too many problemssome assertions, for instance, were not supported by solid or adequate sourcing, several officials say. Indeed, some of the damning information simply could not be proved.

Sound familiar?

If Libby is PB, it’s unlikely he acted without strong encouragement from Cheney. In addition, Chatterbox’s friend Jason Vest, who writes about national security for TheNation and the Village Voice, urges Chatterbox not to forget that National Security Council staff aide Robert Joseph would be a logical person to have worked closely with Libby on this. Judging from the questions at today’s White House press briefing, Joseph is the White House press corps’ No. 1 suspect. (Weirdly, Libby’s name never came up.) It’s previously been reported that Joseph had a role in the negotiations between the White House and the CIA over putting yellowcake into the speech. Note this snippet by David Sanger and James Risen, from the July 12 New York Times:

Before the speech, the crucial conversations between the C.I.A. and White House over whether to include the African reference in the State of the Union address were held between Robert G. Joseph, a nuclear proliferation expert at the National Security Council, and Alan Foley, a proliferation expert at the C.I.A., according to government officials. There is still a dispute over what exactly was said in their conversations. Mr. Foley was said to recall that before the speech, Mr. Joseph called him to ask about putting into the speech a reference to reports that Iraq was trying to buy hundreds of tons of yellowcake from Niger. Mr. Foley replied that the C.I.A. was not sure that the information was right. Mr. Joseph then came back to Mr. Foley and pointed out that the British had already included the information in a report. Mr. Foley said yes, but noted that the C.I.A. had told the British that they were not sure that the information was correct. Mr. Joseph then asked whether it was accurate that the British reported the information. Mr. Foley said yes. Other government officials said, however, that Mr. Joseph did not recall Mr. Foley’s raising any concerns about the reliability of the information. If he had, they said, Mr. Joseph would have made sure that the reference was not included in the speech.

Conceivably, Joseph would have been acting on his own (assuming Foley’s version is the correct one). But knowing how fully engaged Libby was in collecting and assessing Iraq intelligence, Chatterbox has a hard time imagining Libby would have stayed away. Remember: Nobody had an inkling at the time that this would cause any controversy. So Chatterbox is going to guess that Scooter is PB.

[Update, 8:50 p.m.: Reports are trickling out that the person Sen. Durbin spoke of was the National Security Council’s Robert Joseph. The unnamed sources quoted in the pieces say the person who fingered Joseph wasn’t Tenet but the CIA’s Alan Foley, who also testified at the hearing. Foley identified Joseph after being pressed to do so by Durbin. The story Foley told was more or less identical to what David Sanger and James Risen previously reported in the New York Times (see boldfaced passage, above) but with less funky sourcing.

Chatterbox would still like to know whether Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Vice President Dick Cheney leaned on Joseph—or (if Joseph needed no encouragement) egged him on. And then there’s Joseph’s boss, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. …]