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In Washington, the only thing worse than having to testify before a grand jury is not being asked to. I never wanted to go to prison or make hard choices about protecting my sources, but I thought I’d get more out of my bit part in the Valerie Plame saga than the overheated scrutiny of a few bloggers.
Back when I was at Time, I co-wrote the July, 2003 story that has made the last two years of Matthew Cooper’s life so difficult. After the special counsel went after Matt so enthusiastically, the arrival of men in trench coats asking what I knew seemed imminent. But I never got to try out any of my Dashiell Hammett lines on them. When my other former Time colleague Viveca Novak got tangled in Fitzgerald’s hunt last year, I thought, OK, they’re coming now for sure. Nope. No Fitzgerald; no FBI; no nothing.
But it turns out the special counsel was on to me all along. Last week, Scooter Libby filed a motion requesting materials from Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation. The filing included a Jan. 23, 2006, letter from Fitzgerald to Libby’s legal team (marked Exhibit C) that contained this paragraph:
We also advise you that we understand that reporter John Dickerson of Time magazine discussed the trip by Mr. Wilson with government officials at some time on July 11 or after, subsequent to Mr. Cooper learning about Mr. Wilson’s wife. Any conversations involving Mr. Dickerson likely took place in Africa and occurred after July 11.
The Fitzgerald letter (first discovered by a very sharp blogger) was written in response to the Libby team’s questions about other government officials who talked to reporters about Joe Wilson’s wife. This line of inquiry from Libby doesn’t have any obvious connection to his main defense that he was a very busy man. The Jan. 31 filling reads: “Mr. Libby will show that, in the constant rush of more pressing matters, any errors he made in his FBI interviews or grand jury testimony, months after the conversations, were the result of confusion, mistake, or faulty memory, rather than a willful intent to deceive.”
But there is a connection. Team Libby may be trying to show that Plame’s name and identity were in wider circulation than Fitzgerald has suggested. That’s not in itself a defense against the perjury and obstruction charges. But if journalists were chattering about Plame a lot, perhaps his lawyers will back up the “he was a busy man” line with “this wasn’t that big a deal to him.” In other words, they may try to argue that the Plame-Wilson connection was already a well-known bit of gossip and wouldn’t be important enough for someone as busy and important as Libby to specifically remember it. Other conversations between government officials and reporters might also help Libby make a case that Fitzgerald didn’t do a broad investigation, but zeroed in on Libby early and bent the facts to fit a predetermined conclusion.
Though Fitzgerald threw out the tidbit about me (thanks, Pat), he turned down Libby’s request to pick through his investigative material. Now it’s up to the judge to decide whether Libby gets to take a look. While the wheels of justice grind, here’s my story, for whatever it’s worth:
In July 2003, I was a White House correspondent for Time magazine, traveling with the president in Africa. Bush was trying to promote his $15 billion AIDS assistance package but he kept getting interrupted. He would visit a clinic and give a speech, but all reporters wanted to ask about was faulty prewar intelligence. Joe Wilson had published his infamous op-ed in the New York Times just before the trip. That, along with other disclosures, led White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to make a rare public admission: The 16 words mentioning Saddam’s efforts to buy uranium from Africa were “incorrect” and should not have been in the 2003 State of the Union address.
That didn’t stop the questions. It multiplied them. At every stop, we reporters clamored for an explanation of how that bad information about “yellowcake” had gotten into the speech. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who were traveling with Bush, held press conferences, but they raised more questions than they answered. The papers seemed to have a damaging new disclosure about weak prewar intelligence every day. Administration officials assumed the leaks were coming from the CIA, where analysts didn’t want to be blamed for the failure to uncover weapons stockpiles in Iraq.
The White House-CIA spat had been growing over the previous months. It was the second billing on the fight card below the Powell-Cheney cage match. When an administration official would say something that hinted the intelligence services might have made mistakes about Saddam’s weapons, leaks would soon follow suggesting that White House officials had spun carefully nuanced information from the CIA into a case for war. “Remind me to take something more than a knife to a gun fight,” one senior administration official on the trip said to me, referring to the spat.
Four days into the trip, on an early morning flight to Uganda, Condi Rice visited the small press cabin in the back of Air Force One, where I was in the pool of reporters that flies on the president’s plane. We expected more of the same fancy footwork from earlier in the week about who was to blame for the 16 words. We didn’t get it. Condi blamed the CIA. This was new. The Bush administration didn’t usually point fingers that openly. (We later learned that Dr. Rice had called Tenet that morning to let him know she was going to ruin his day.)
Moments later, we landed in Entebbe, Uganda. We drove past the abandoned Air France jet still marooned at the airport more than 30 years after the famous 1976 Israeli raid. We thought that would be the biggest drama of our short four-hour visit. Though the travel pool was going to be allowed in to see the start of President Bush’s meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, we were told Bush wouldn’t take a question, as he sometimes does in such situations. But moments before the meeting, we were told that Bush had changed his mind and would take a question. He knew that he would be asked about the faulty info and had a line prepared. “I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services,” Bush said.
This was news. The president was known for his loyalty to subordinates, but here he was throwing his CIA director, George Tenet, under a bus. This wasn’t just a personal departure by the president. It was the ultimate blow in the bureaucratic battle between the CIA and his White House.
We pool reporters were hustled away from the dignitaries into a cramped holding room where they kept us until the larger press contingent arrived for the president’s public remarks. They’d set up phone lines and I tried to dial out the news. Given the local technology, it took a while. When I finally made it through, I realized it was 8 a.m. in the States *. I left a rambling message on my bureau chief’s voicemail, which he would pick up several hours later and relay in an e-mail to my colleagues working on the story: “John reports that they’ve dimed out Tenet.”
Click here for Part 2 to find out what government officials told me about Wilson’s trip and why Patrick Fitzgerald’s account of my conversations is wrong.
Correction, Feb. 8, 2006: The article originally and incorrectly stated that it was 5 a.m. in Washington when Bush finished his remarks. It was 8 a.m.