WASHINGTON – A New York Times reporter's accounts of her private conversations with Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff capture a behind-the-scenes blame game between the White House and the CIA (search) over the war in Iraq.
Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (search), complained that the CIA and other agencies were trying to shift responsibility to the White House over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (search) after the U.S.-led invasion, reporter Judith Miller wrote in a first-person story in Sunday's editions.
Miller recounted her recent grand jury testimony, describing her conversations with Libby about Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson (search) and his wife, covert CIA officer Valerie Plame (search).
It was Plame's identity that was leaked to reporters in an apparent effort to undercut the credibility of her husband. Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador, contended the administration manipulated intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
Miller revealed that Libby referred to Wilson's wife in three conversations, though not by name.
"I recall that Mr. Libby was displeased with what he described as 'selective leaking' by the CIA," Miller wrote. "He told me that the agency was engaged in a 'hedging strategy' to protect itself in case no weapons were found in Iraq."
Amid the ultimately futile hunt for the banned weapons, Libby told Miller that the CIA's strategy was, "If we find it, fine, if not, we hedged," the reporter recounted.
Libby's "frustration and anger" spilled over into their conversations, Miller wrote, with the Cheney aide describing leaking by the CIA as part of a "perverted war" over the war in Iraq.
Libby, she said, characterized intelligence agencies' prewar assessments as unequivocal on the question of whether Iraq had the deadly weapons.
The White House's primary justification for invading Iraq and toppling President Saddam Hussein (search) had been the assertion that he had such weapons; U.S. intelligence agencies indeed concluded that was so.
Subsequent inquiries have shown there was dissent among those agencies before the war over some of the data supporting the conclusions.
During the period when Libby was complaining to Miller about CIA leaks, Libby was doing some leaking of his own to Miller about Wilson and his wife, the covert CIA officer.
Libby had persuaded the reporter to refer to him for a prospective story as a "former Hill staffer," a switch from their earlier understanding that Libby should be referred to as a senior administration official.
"I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill," Miller said. "I assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson."
Libby "proceeded through a lengthy and sharp critique of Mr. Wilson and what Mr. Libby viewed as the CIA's backpedaling on the intelligence leading to war," Miller said in describing a two-hour breakfast with Libby at a hotel near the White House in July 2003.
Two days earlier, Wilson wrote an opinion column in the Times in which he leveled the charge against the administration of manipulating prewar intelligence about Iraq's supposed nuclear weapons program.
Miller had written stories before the war supporting the administration's position that Iraq had such a program.
"Although I was interested primarily in my area of expertise -- chemical and biological weapons -- my notes show that Mr. Libby consistently steered our conversation back to the administration's nuclear claims," Miller wrote Sunday in The Times.
"His main theme echoed that of other senior officials: that contrary to Mr. Wilson's criticism, the administration had had ample reason to be concerned about Iraq's nuclear capabilities based on the regime's history of weapons development, its use of unconventional weapons and fresh intelligence reports," she said.
Wilson's criticism came after the CIA had sent him to Africa to check out intelligence that Iraq had an agreement with the government of Niger to acquire uranium yellowcake. When refined, it can be used in nuclear weapons. Wilson's trip prompted his later criticism.
Libby said CIA Director George Tenet (search) had never even heard of Wilson and that a National Intelligence Estimate (search) on Iraq firmly concluded that Iraq was seeking uranium. A classified portion of the estimate contained dissent on that point.
Miller said she "pressed Mr. Libby to discuss additional information that was in the more detailed, classified version of the estimate."
"According to my interview notes, though, it appears that Mr. Libby said little more than that the assessments of the classified estimate were even stronger than those in the unclassified version," Miller wrote.
In the end, Tenet said the CIA should never have let President Bush in his State of the Union address repeat a British report that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa.
U.S. intelligence analysts could not corroborate it. The president's deputy national security adviser at the time, Stephen Hadley, apologized as well, saying he had received two memos from the CIA and a phone call from Tenet several months before the president's address raising objections to the assertion.