Libby learned of CIA agent from Cheney, lawyers say

Notes of conversation appear to differ from top aide's testimony to grand jury


WASHINGTON — . I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, first learned about the CIA officer at the heart of the leak investigation in a conversation with Cheney weeks before her identity became public in 2003, lawyers involved in the case said yesterday.

Notes of the previously undisclosed conversation between Libby and Cheney on June 12, 2003, appear to differ from Libby's testimony to a federal grand jury that he initially learned about the CIA officer, Valerie Plame, from journalists, the lawyers said.

The notes, taken by Libby during the conversation, for the first time place Cheney in the middle of an effort by the White House to learn about Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was questioning the administration's handling of intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program to justify the war.

Lawyers involved in the case, who described the notes to The New York Times, said they showed that Cheney knew that Plame worked at the CIA more than a month before her identity was made public and her undercover status was disclosed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak on July 14, 2003.

Libby's notes indicate that Cheney got his information about Plame from George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, in response to questions from the vice president about her husband. But they contain no suggestion that either Cheney or Libby knew at the time of her undercover status or that her identity was classified. Disclosing a covert agent's identity can be a crime, but only if the person who discloses it knows the agent's undercover status.

It would not be illegal for either Cheney or Libby, both of whom are presumably cleared to know the government's deepest secrets, to discuss a CIA officer or her link to a critic of the administration. But any effort by Libby to steer investigators away from his conversation with Cheney could be considered by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel in the case, to be an illegal effort to impede the inquiry.

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment, and Libby's lawyer, Joseph Tate, would not comment on Libby's legal status.

Fitzgerald is expected to decide whether to bring charges in the case by Friday, when the grand jury term expires. Libby and Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser, both face the possibility of indictment, lawyers involved in the case have said.

The notes help explain the legal difficulties facing Libby. Lawyers in the case said Libby testified to the grand jury that he had first heard from journalists that Plame might have had a role in dispatching her husband on a CIA-sponsored mission to Africa in 2002 in search of evidence that Iraq had acquired nuclear material there for its weapons program.

But the notes, now in Fitzgerald's possession, also indicate that Libby first heard about-- Plame from Cheney. That apparent discrepancy in his testimony suggests why prosecutors are weighing false statement charges against him in what they interpret as an effort by Libby to protect Cheney from scrutiny, the lawyers said.

It is not clear why Libby would have suggested to the grand jury that he might have learned about Plame from journalists if he was aware that Fitzgerald had obtained the notes of the conversation with Cheney or might do so. At the beginning of the investigation, President Bush had pledged the White House's full cooperation and had instructed aides to provide Fitzgerald with any information he sought.

The notes do not show that Cheney knew the name of Wilson's wife. But they show that Cheney did know and told Libby that she was employed by the CIA and that she might have helped arrange her husband's trip. Some lawyers in the case have said Fitzgerald might face obstacles in bringing a false statement charge against Libby. They said it could be difficult to prove that he intentionally sought to mislead the grand jury.

Lawyers involved in the case said they had no indication that Fitzgerald was considering charging Cheney with wrongdoing. Cheney was interviewed under oath by Fitzgerald last year. It is not known what the vice president told him about the conversation with Libby or when Fitzgerald first learned of it.

But the evidence of Cheney's direct involvement in the effort to learn more about Wilson is sure to intensify the political pressure on the White House in a week of high anxiety among Republicans about the potential for the case to deal a sharp blow to Bush's presidency.

Tenet was not available for comment last night. But another former senior intelligence official said Tenet had been interviewed by the special prosecutor and his staff in early 2004 but never appeared before the grand jury. Tenet has not talked since then to the prosecutors, the former official said.

The former official said he strongly doubted that the White House learned about Plame from Tenet.

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