Former Vice President Dick Cheney. (Photo: Getty Images)
In early fall 2003, as the scandal over leaking a covert CIA officer's identity was exploding, President George W. Bush claimed not to know anything about the leak and called on anyone in his administration who had knowledge to come "forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true."
How disingenuous the president's appeal was has been underscored again by a new Justice Department court filing sketching out the contents of the 2004 interview between special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Though the Obama administration continues to balk at releasing the full contents of the Cheney interview, it did reveal that Bush and Cheney were in contact about the scandal, including what is described as "a confidential conversation" and "an apparent communication between the Vice President and the President."
The filing in a federal court case also makes clear that Cheney was at the center of White House machinations rebutting criticism from former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who charged in summer 2003 that the Bush administration had "twisted" intelligence to justify invading Iraq in March 2003. While seeking to discredit Wilson, administration officials disclosed to reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA.
Bush and his subordinates then sought to deny a White House hand in the leak. White House press secretary Scott McClellan later apologized for his role in the deception in his 2008 book, "What Happened," saying that Bush and four other high-ranking officials caused him to lie to the public in clearing Bush's political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis Libby of any responsibility for the Plame leak.
"I had unknowingly passed along false information," McClellan wrote. "And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, Vice President Cheney, the president's chief of staff [Andrew Card], and the president himself."
Eventually, the cover-up led to the prosecution of Libby, who was found guilty in 2007 of four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, but Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence.
When Fitzgerald's investigation came to a close with only that one prosecution, questions were raised about his reasoning for not bringing legal action against Bush, Cheney, or other senior officials implicated in the leak and cover-up. Those questions led to Congressional requests for the Bush-Cheney interviews and to the current Freedom of Information court case.
In its new court filing, the Obama administration opposed release of the Cheney interview, but described the topics discussed. Besides the contacts with Bush, the filing referenced Cheney's questions to the CIA about its decision to send Wilson to Africa in 2002 to investigate - and ultimately refute - suspicions that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium from the African country of Niger.
Cheney also was asked about his role in arranging a statement by then-CIA Director George Tenet taking responsibility for including a misleading claim about the African uranium in Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, and Cheney's discussions with Libby and other White House officials about how to respond to inquiries regarding the leak of Plame's identity, the court filing said.
Fitzgerald also questioned Cheney about his participation in the decision to declassify parts of a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq's alleged WMD. It ultimately fell to Bush to clear selected parts of the NIE so they could be leaked as part of the White House campaign to disparage Wilson.
A public interest group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is seeking access to Fitzgerald's interview with Cheney under the Freedom of Information Act and now has confronted refusals from both the Bush administration and the Obama administration.
Though President Obama declared a new era of openness when he entered the White House in January, he has recently had his administration's lawyers resist releasing information about the secret dealings of the Bush administration.
In the CIA leak case, Justice Department lawyers claimed that disclosing Cheney's interview might discourage future government officials from cooperating with criminal inquiries.
"In any such investigation, it will be important that White House officials be able to provide law enforcement officials with a full account of relevant events," said Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the criminal division.
"Baseless, partisan allegations that easily could be investigated and dismissed through voluntary interviews now may have to be investigated through the specter of the grand jury process. In addition, if law enforcement interviews are routinely subject to public disclosure, there could be a significant risk of politicization of law enforcement files and investigations, which could undermine the integrity and effectiveness of, and public confidence in, those investigations."
Last month, during a court hearing on the case, Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Smith told the judge that release of the transcript might open Cheney to ridicule from late-night comics and thus could discourage other White House officials from cooperating with government prosecutors.
"If we become a fact-finder for political enemies, they aren't going to cooperate," Smith said during a court hearing. "I don't want a future Vice President to say, 'I'm not going to cooperate with you because I don't want to be fodder for The Daily Show.'"
When asked by US District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan whether the Obama administration was standing behind the refusal of Bush's Justice Department to release the transcript, Smith answered, "This has been vetted by the leadership offices.... This is a department position."
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, "It is astonishing that a top Department of Justice political appointee is suggesting other high-level appointees are unlikely to cooperate with legitimate law enforcement investigations. What is wrong with this picture?"
Fitzgerald told a Congressional committee last year that the interviews he conducted with Cheney and Bush in 2004 were not protected by grand jury secrecy rules, nor were there any prearranged agreements to keep the interview transcripts secret.
The insistence on keeping the interviews secret arose late in the Bush administration when Congress sought the transcripts. Bush's Justice Department cited executive privilege and national security in refusing to turn them over as well as the speculation about the effect on future White House cooperation with investigations.
The Obama administration has now taken up that banner while also adding concerns about possible comic use of the transcripts.
More CIA Delays
The CIA leak case was only one of two examples this week of the Obama administration going back on its word about government transparency.
On Thursday, the Justice Department said it would not release until the end of the summer a CIA inspector general's report that was believed to have been sharply critical of the Bush administration's torture program. Even then, the Justice Department said there is no guarantee that any part of the report would be declassified.
The announcement was made following several previous delays in the long-running court case between the CIA and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to gain access to the report and other documents related to the treatment of prisoners.
The Justice Department, acting on behalf of the CIA, previously told US District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein that the agency would re-evaluate whether the report's contents could be at least partially released by June 19. The CIA then requested two extensions - to June 26 and then July 1.
"The Report poses unique processing issues," the Justice Department said in a letter on Thursday. "It is over 200 pages long and contains a comprehensive summary and review of the CIA's detention and interrogation program.
"The Report touches upon the information contained in virtually all of the remaining 318 documents remanded for further review. Although the Government has endeavored in good faith to complete the review of the Special Review Report first, as we have gone through the process, we have determined that prioritizing the Report is simply untenable....
"We have determined that the only practicable approach is to first complete the review of the remaining 318 documents, and then apply the withholding determinations made with respect to the information in those documents to the Special Review Report....One month into that process, we have concluded that we must review all of the documents together, and that the review will take until August 31, 2009."
The ACLU, in a letter to Hellerstein, said it "strenuously" opposes the two-month delay, which would amount to "a fourth extension" of the original deadline.
Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, said the CIA "has already had more than five months to review the inspector general's report, and the report is only about two hundred pages long."
"We're increasingly troubled that the Obama administration is suppressing documents that would provide more evidence that the CIA's interrogation program was both ineffective and illegal," Jaffer said. "President Obama should not allow the CIA to determine whether evidence of its own unlawful conduct should be made available to the public. The public has a right to know what took place in the CIA's secret prisons and on whose authority."
Amrit Singh, an ACLU staff attorney who has been working on the case, said it's "apparent that the CIA report is not being delayed for legitimate reasons, but to cover up evidence of the agency's illegal and ineffective interrogation practices....
"It is time for the President to hold true to his promise of transparency and once and for all quash the forces of secrecy within the agency. The American public has a right to know the full truth about the torture that was committed in its name."