Iraq Findings Leaked by Cheney's Aide Were Disputed
By DAVID E. SANGER
and DAVID BARSTOW
Published: April 9, 2006
WASHINGTON, April 8 — President Bush's apparent order authorizing a senior White House official to reveal to a reporter previously classified intelligence about Saddam Hussein's efforts to obtain uranium came as the information was already being discredited by several other officials in the administration, interviews and documents from the time show.
A review of the records and interviews conducted during and after the crucial period in June and July of 2003 also show that what the aide, I. Lewis Libby Jr., said he was authorized to portray as a "key judgment" by intelligence officers had in fact been given much less prominence in the most important assessment of Iraq's weapons capability.
Mr. Libby said he drew on that report, the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, when he spoke with the reporter. However, the conclusions about Mr. Hussein's search for uranium appear to have been buried deeper in the report in part because of doubts about their reliability.
The new account of the interactions among Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby was spelled out last week in a court filing by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case. It adds considerably to a picture of an administration in some disarray as the failure to discover illicit weapons in Iraq had undermined the central rationale for the American invasion in March 2003.
Against the backdrop of what has previously been disclosed, the court filing sheds particular light on how Mr. Bush and some of his top deputies had begun to pull in different directions. Even as some officials, including Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, started to reveal deep doubts that Mr. Hussein had sought uranium to reconstitute his nuclear program, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby were seeking to disseminate information suggesting that they had acted on credible intelligence, while not discussing their actions with other top aides.
Mr. Fitzgerald, in his filing, said that Mr. Libby had been authorized to tell Judith Miller, then a reporter for The New York Times, on July 8, 2003, that a key finding of the 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraq was that Baghdad had been vigorously seeking to acquire uranium from Africa.
But a week earlier, in an interview in his State Department office, Mr. Powell told three other reporters for The Times that intelligence agencies had essentially rejected that contention, and were "no longer carrying it as a credible item" by early 2003, when he was preparing to make the case against Iraq at the United Nations.
Mr. Powell's queasiness with some of the intelligence has been well known, but the new revelations suggest that long after he had concluded the intelligence was faulty, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby were still promoting it.
Much remains unknown about that period. In his filing, Mr. Fitzgerald recounted a prosecutor's summary of Mr. Libby's testimony to the grand jury. Mr. Libby was, in turn, describing conversations with Mr. Cheney that included the vice president's description of discussions he had had with Mr. Bush. The White House is not commenting on the issue, saying it is still pending in court, but it has not disputed any of the assertions in the court filing. Mr. Libby has also not disputed the assertions.
The events took place at a time when the administration's failure to find illicit weapons in Iraq had raised serious questions about the credibility of prewar intelligence. The White House was finding itself under fire from critics, like former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who were suggesting that the administration's claims about Iraq's efforts to acquire uranium, featured in Mr. Bush's State of the Union address in 2003, had been exaggerated.
The court filing asserts that Mr. Bush authorized the disclosure of the intelligence in part to rebut claims that Mr. Wilson was making, including those in a television appearance and in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on July 6, 2003. The filing revealed for the first time testimony by Mr. Libby saying that Mr. Bush, through Mr. Cheney, had authorized Mr. Libby to tell reporters that "a key judgment of the N.I.E. held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium."
In fact, that was not one of the "key judgments" of the document. Instead, it was the subject of several paragraphs on Page 24 of the document, which also acknowledged that Mr. Hussein had long possessed 500 tons of uranium that was under seal by international inspectors, and that no intelligence agencies had ever confirmed whether he had obtained any more of the material from Africa.
A report by the British in 2004, however, concluded that there was a reasonable basis to conclude that Mr. Hussein had sought to obtain uranium from Africa. Once enriched, uranium can be used for weapons fuel.
In addition to Mr. Powell, other administration officials, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis in early July 2003, were also acknowledging that the intelligence was widely known as seriously flawed. Ari Fleischer, then the White House spokesman, acknowledged as much publicly in a White House briefing on July 7, 2003.
But if the new court filing is correct, the next day, Mr. Libby, on behalf of Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, provided an exaggerated account of the intelligence conclusions.
The court filing by Mr. Fitzgerald does not assert exactly when the conversation between Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney took place, or exactly when Mr. Cheney communicated its contents to Mr. Libby, except that it was before July 8, 2003. The context of Mr. Fitzgerald's assertions makes clear, however, that the conversation took place in late June or early July 2003.
Mr. Libby also described the intelligence estimate to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post earlier, on June 27, 2003.
Mr. Fitzgerald's latest filing also describes the degree to which senior White House officials kept information from one another. Even as the president was dispatching Mr. Libby to disclose what until then had been classified intelligence to Ms. Miller of The Times, other White House officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, now Mr. Bush's national security adviser, were debating whether this same information should be formally declassified and made public, prosecutors assert.
But Mr. Libby "consciously decided not to make Mr. Hadley aware of the fact that defendant himself had already been disseminating the N.I.E. by leaking it to reporters while Mr. Hadley sought to get it formally declassified," Mr. Fitzgerald's motion states. Mr. Hadley's spokesman declined to comment on the filing on Friday.
But a senior official close to Mr. Hadley said that "it appears that the only three people who knew about the instant declassification were Dick Cheney, George Bush and Scooter Libby." The official refused to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
Why those three men were acting so quietly remains a mystery, and Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have never discussed it in public. Aides to Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney were beginning to suggest at the time that any exaggerations about Iraq's weapons program had been the fault of the C.I.A., not the White House.
Mr. Fitzgerald argued in his filing to the court last week that by July 8, Mr. Libby was trying to rebut the Op-Ed article in The Times, published by Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson reported in that article that he had been sent to Niger by the C.I.A. to search for evidence of the transaction, and reported back that there was insufficient evidence that any serious effort had taken place.
"The evidence will show that the July 6, 2003, Op-Ed by Mr. Wilson was viewed in the Office of the Vice President as a direct attack on the credibility of the vice president (and the president) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq," Mr. Fitzgerald argued.
But in interviews, other former and current senior officials have offered alternative explanations.
"Remember, this was taking place in the middle of the White House-C.I.A. war," one former White House official who witnessed the events said this week, refusing to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the subject.
As the controversy arose early that summer over why Mr. Bush had included mention of Iraqi uranium in his 2003 State of the Union address, the official recalled, White House officials were convinced that the C.I.A. was placing the blame on the president, suggesting he had politicized the intelligence.
By releasing Mr. Libby to discuss the conclusion in the National Intelligence Estimate, the official said, "they were dumping this back in Langley's lap," making it clear that Mr. Bush had relied on information provided by the intelligence agencies. The C.I.A. headquarters are in Langley, Va.
Later that week, George J. Tenet, then the C.I.A. director, took responsibility for the error, saying he had never read over the draft of the State of the Union address that had been sent to him.
According to Mr. Fitzgerald's motion, Mr. Libby testified that he was directed by Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush to describe the uranium allegations to Ms. Miller of The Times as a "key judgment" of the National Intelligence Estimate. Citing intelligence as a "key judgment" in such estimates carries great weight with policy makers, because the reports are meant to highlight the most important and solid judgments of the government's intelligence agencies.
"Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, that a key judgment of the N.I.E. held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium," prosecutors wrote.
In fact, the estimate's key judgments, which were officially declassified 10 days after Mr. Libby's meeting with Ms. Miller, say nothing about the uranium allegations. The key judgments on Iraq's nuclear program — namely, that Iraq was again trying to build a bomb — were based instead on other intelligence, like the assertion that Iraq was seeking high-strength aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges. Ms. Miller authored no newspaper article about the leaked weapons information.
In an interview with The Times in 2004, a senior intelligence official involved in drafting the estimate said the uranium allegations were excluded from the key judgments because the drafters knew there were serious doubts about their accuracy.
As a result, the official said, the drafters cast the uranium allegations as a minor element in the overall assessment of Iraq's nuclear capabilities. The assertion that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium was mentioned on the bottom of Page 24 of the 90-page document. The drafters also noted, in an annex attached to the end of the document, that State Department intelligence officials considered the uranium allegation "highly dubious."