Yesterday, National Journal published a fascinating story by Murray Waas reporting on the efforts of Vice President Dick Cheney back June 2002 to force Congress to conduct an investigation of a leak involving the National Security Agency. The story involves a call Mr. Cheney made to former Senator Bob Graham D-Fla., following news articles that reported that NSA had intercepted communications by the 9/11 hijackers on September 10, the day before the attacks, but which were not translated until September 12, the day after. As Congress was investigating why the nation’s intelligence agencies, and the Administration itself, had not discovered the 9/11 plot, the NSA intercept information had been revealed to select members of Congress immediately before the apparent leaks to the press.
Waas reveals that Cheney’s phone call was an apparent attempt to intimidate Congress into cracking down on leaks of classified information or risk losing substantial access to executive officials and information the Administration wished to keep confidential from Congress.
Because someone had leaked the highly classified information from the NSA intercepts, Cheney warned Graham, the Bush administration was considering ending all cooperation with the joint inquiry by the Senate and House Intelligence committees on the government’s failure to predict and prevent the September 11 attacks. Classified records would no longer be turned over to the Hill, the vice president threatened, and administration witnesses would not be available for interviews or testimony.
Moreover, Graham recalled in an interview for this story, Cheney warned that unless the leaders of the Intelligence committees took action to discover who leaked the information about the intercepts — and more importantly, to make sure that such leaks never happened again — President Bush would directly make the case to the American people that Congress could not be trusted with vital national security secrets.
In the process, Cheney also sought to use Congress to bring pressure on the media to reveal sources whenever government secrets were leaked. And Cheney might also have hoped to preclude Congress from investigating the main story itself — that NSA had intelligence regarding the 9/11 hijackers but the Administration did not act upon it quickly enough.
The rest of the story is fascinating and well worth the read, but here I focus on a link to the outing of Valerie Plame. As Murray reports, a central irony of the Cheney efforts to intimidate Congress into investigating the NSA intercept leak was that it added to the arguments a year later for having an independent prosecutor — Fitzgerald — appointed in the Plame leak case.
Graham, for one, believes that Cheney and Libby’s strident demands to investigate leakers in Congress made it all but impossible for the White House to do anything less than cooperate fully with any criminal investigation of the Plame leak.
“They [the administration] would have had a certain exposure to hypocrisy if they hid behind executive privilege” when the Plame investigation began, or if they had fought the appointment of a special prosecutor, Graham said. “It made it politically untenable to avoid having a strong investigation, because they had demanded it of us. With us, they said we should call out the meanest, leanest dogs. The example that they set with us became the boomerang that came around and hit them.”
In addition, although Senator Shelby of Alabama was investigated by the FBI regarding the NSA leak, the 2002 case ended in much frustration over the inability of the FBI to compel reporters to reveal their sources. The FBI officer on that case was Jack Eckenrode, the same agent who would later help in the investigation in the Valerie Plame case. But this time, he had Fitzgerald’s support in going after reporters:
With Fitzgerald’s appointment as special prosecutor, Eckenrode found a sympathetic ear for his complaint that leak probes often went nowhere because suspects knew that reporters would never be forced to testify. Although the men agreed that reporters should be compelled to testify only as a last resort, Fitzgerald assured Eckenrode that he would demand such testimony if necessary.
Fitzgerald’s resolve was displayed later in the Plame case when he pursued contempt charges against then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She refused to testify after being subpoenaed and ended up spending 85 days in jail. Miller finally agreed to testify about her conversations with Libby about Plame — after Libby called her in jail and encouraged her to do so.
The irony that Libby, once the vice president’s top aide, was accused of concealing his role in leaking information to the press has not been lost on some. Graham said in an interview: “It’s hard to believe that the chief of staff to the vice president was acting as a rogue agent. What we have learned from the trial validates the suspicion that Libby was not just operating as a lone ranger. He was carrying out what the vice president wanted him to do, which was to besmirch Joe Wilson. I think Libby has been a conspirator in one of the most reprehensible and damaging breaches of American security in modern history.”
There’s lots more; read the rest of the story here, and then if you have not already done so, stop by Salon and read Sidney Blumenthal’s excellent summary of the Libby trial, which Christy highlighted in this post yesterday, and Marcy’s take on the three reporters who didn’t testify, at TNH. Then watch and listen to Jane and Marcy’s wrap up, posted last night, on the final day before jury instructions.