Questions on Cheney's role in leak linger

Cheney Aide Indicted

Vice president

White House Indictment


WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney appears as no more than a background character in the indictment of his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr.. Yet even that secondary role raises questions about whether Cheney played any part in the alleged effort to discredit an administration critic.

And as the Libby case moves forward, it is likely to focus more attention on the vice president's position as one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes figures in government.

The five-count federal indictment says Cheney talked to Libby about the fact that Valerie Plame - the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former U.S. ambassador and administration critic - was a CIA operative. And it suggests that Cheney was close by his chief of staff as Libby took some of the actions that led to the charges of lying and obstruction of justice.

If the case goes to trial, testimony could show whether Cheney had any role in inspiring Libby's alleged decision to unmask Plame. Even if Cheney emerges blameless, the indictment deprives him of the capable and like-minded assistant who helped him carry out his foreign policy agenda, beginning with the Iraq war.

Cheney has been "splashed by this, though not soaked," said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

Cheney and Libby have had the closest kind of working relationship, based on a strong mutual admiration.

Common views, style

The two share hawkish foreign policy views, a wry sense of humor and a hard-charging style. Yesterday, Cheney said he accepted the resignation with "deep regret," and called Libby "one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known."

The indictment says that Cheney was the third person, after an unidentified undersecretary of state and a CIA officer, to discuss with Libby the fact that Plame was a CIA officer. It is not illegal for senior officials with security clearances to talk about classified matter. What was illegal, yesterday's indictment charged, was the alleged false statements Libby subsequently made about the Wilson affair in interviews with the FBI and in testimony before the grand jury investigating the CIA leak case.

Libby's conversation with Cheney took place around June 12, 2003 - about the time when Libby and unidentified other "officials in the office of the vice president" discussed how to respond to Wilson's allegations that the administration was lying about Iraq's alleged purchase of uranium ore from Niger, a claim that formed part of President Bush's rationale for invading Iraq.

The indictment hints that Cheney and Libby may have discussed how to handle the Wilson problem and the news coverage of Wilson's charges. It says that on or about July 12, on the return leg of a trip to Norfolk, Va., with Cheney, Libby talked over "with other officials aboard the plane" what Libby should say about media inquires, including some from Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper.

The indictment did not indicate whether Cheney participated in that discussion.

Robert Boorstin, a former Clinton administration aide now at the Center for American Progress, said that there is little chance that these charges will hurt Cheney in his relationship with Bush. Cheney is "still the 800-pound gorilla, he's still going to be the last person who whispers into the president's ear."

A blow to morale

Still, said Boorstin, it will be hard for Cheney to find a replacement as effective as Libby, and his loss will likely be a blow to morale in the office of the vice president.

The indictment comes at a time that has already been difficult for Cheney, analysts pointed out.

He was one of the earliest and most influential advocates of an Iraq war, which continues to lose public support.

Personal criticism

He has come under personal criticism recently as opponents of the war have been emboldened. Last week, in an article in New Yorker magazine, Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the elder President George Bush, suggested that Cheney had changed greatly since he oversaw the 1991 Persian Gulf War as secretary of defense. "I don't know him anymore," Scowcroft said.

Meanwhile, there are some suggestions that in his second term, the current president has been more inclined to follow the advice of his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and to take a less hawkish line on issues such as the alleged North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programs.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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