Cheney's tussles with CIA are subtext of leak probe

Vice president's skeptical view of intelligence agency dates back to the late 1980s

October 21, 2005|By TOM HAMBURGER AND PETER WALLSTEN | TOM HAMBURGER AND PETER WALLSTEN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- For more than a decade, Dick Cheney has tussled with the CIA, first as secretary of defense and later as vice president. Now, that long and tortured history forms the backdrop of a federal probe into who outed an undercover agency officer - an inquiry that is centering in part on Cheney's office.

Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has interviewed not only the vice president but also his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and several other current and former Cheney aides as he seeks to learn who told reporters about the agent and whether anyone obstructed his inquiry. Understanding Cheney's long relationship with Libby, and their shared doubts about the CIA, helps explain why the vice president and his staff would draw the interest of the prosecutor. Fitzgerald is in the final stages of deciding whether to issue indictments, according to defense lawyers in the case.

Fitzgerald is trying to determine who revealed to the news media the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover officer and the wife of former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had publicly accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to rally support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Initially, Fitzgerald was investigating whether Plame was outed as an effort to undermine her husband's credibility by suggesting a fact-finding mission he undertook for the CIA was the result of nepotism. However, the inquiry has broadened to consider questions of perjury, obstruction of justice and possibly conspiracy to violate laws governing use of classified materials.

In pursuing the case, Fitzgerald has learned about continuing tensions between Cheney's circle and the CIA. According to a former White House official interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Libby and others in the White House had been incensed by Wilson's public criticism, partly because they saw it as a salvo fired by the CIA at administration officials, including Cheney, who was perhaps the most outspoken advocate of the case against Iraq.

Witnesses have told Fitzgerald about those tensions. New York Times reporter Judith Miller wrote recently that she told the grand jury that Libby had been "angry" with the CIA in the months after the invasion of Iraq, saying that President Bush might have made inaccurate statements about Iraqi weapons programs because the agency did not discuss its doubts about the intelligence.

Cheney's skepticism of the CIA's abilities dates to the late 1980s, when the agency failed early on to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union, according to a source familiar with Cheney's views. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and the administration of President George H.W. Bush began to ponder its military options, it became clear to Cheney that the intelligence community had a poor understanding of Hussein's arsenal in Iraq.

Libby, who was working for Cheney, assigned an aide to conduct his own secret investigation of Hussein's biological warfare capabilities and his likely reactions to a U.S. invasion.

"Libby's basic view of the world is that the CIA has blown it over and over again," said the source, who declined to be identified because he spoke with Libby on a confidential basis.

In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Cheney worked with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld's then-deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to challenge CIA findings that countered their expectations or that disagreed with information they had received through their separately established intelligence channels.

Cheney traveled from the White House to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., a dozen times, most often to discuss Iraq's possible links to nuclear weapons and terrorism. Cheney's visits were more frequent than that of any other president or vice president, agency veterans have said.

When Cheney visited the CIA, he asked questions about Afghanistan and China. But Iraq was his focus, particularly in the months leading up to the war.

Unlike Libby and others working with the vice president, Cheney was always polite. But in his quiet way, Cheney was insistent, sometimes asking the same question repeatedly, as if he hoped the answer to questions would change, according to people familiar with the vice president's contacts with the CIA.

Cheney's visits perked up agency analysts who often worked anonymously, said one former official. Many enjoyed the challenge of a smart questioner and appreciated his interest. But Cheney's visits and his relentless clinging to certain views became noticeable and drew expressions of concern, according to the former official.

A presidential commission on intelligence led by a senior federal judge, Laurence H. Silberman, concluded that questioning of intelligence analysts by outsiders is healthy and said in its final report, issued in March, on the Iraq war that the "intelligence community did not make or change any analytical judgments in response to political pressure to reach a particular conclusion." Nonetheless, the tensions between the vice president's office and the CIA increased in the months after the war as investigators failed to find weapons of mass destruction. White House staffers feared they would be blamed by the CIA for encouraging misleading intelligence estimates, one former official said.

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write for the Los Angeles Times.

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