Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cheney's Attempts To Intimidate Congress Led To Some Unintended Consequences

Dick Cheney's attempt to crack down on the leaking of classified material by Congress led -- in a roundabout way -- to Plamegate.

From Murray Waas:

Early on the morning of June 20, 2002, then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., received a telephone call at home from a highly agitated Dick Cheney. Graham, who was in the middle of shaving, held a razor in one hand as he took the phone in the other.

The vice president got right to the point: A story in his morning newspaper reported that telephone calls intercepted by the National Security Agency on September 10, 2001, apparently warned that Al Qaeda was about to launch a major attack against the United States, possibly the next day. But the intercepts were not translated until September 12, 2001, the story said, the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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. ...

On that morning in June 2002, Cheney could not have known that his complaints to Graham about the leaking of classified information would help set events in motion that eventually would lead to the prosecution of his own chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, as the result of a separate leak investigation. ...

Although no charges were brought in the investigation of the leaked NSA intercepts, the probe helped to pave the way for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate leaks out of the White House and, specifically the Office of the Vice President, in the Plame matter, according to administration, congressional, and law enforcement officials interviewed for this story.

"They [the administration] set the prosecutorial machinery in motion themselves, and the public support for it, before it came back to bite them," said a federal law enforcement official.

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. ...

By 7:30 in the morning on that June day in 2002 when Cheney called Graham, the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Intelligence committees met in a secure room in the Capitol. They discussed how to prevent fallout from the administration's threat that they could not be trusted with classified information. Present at the meeting were Graham, Goss, Shelby, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, then the ranking Democrat on the House panel. Senior aides were excluded.

The four lawmakers emerged from their meeting and told their staffs that they had decided to take the unprecedented step of requesting the Justice Department to conduct a criminal inquiry into whether they, any other members of their committees, or their aides were responsible for leaking the NSA intercepts to the media.

A key participant in the events recalled in an interview: "It was a hastily made decision, made out of a sense of panic... and by people with bleary eyes."

Another person involved recalled: "There was a real concern that any meaningful oversight by Congress was very much at stake. The political dynamic back then -- not that long after September 11 -- was completely different. They took Cheney's threats very seriously."

Graham said, "Looking back at it, I think we were clearly set up by Dick Cheney and the White House. They wanted to shut us down. And they wanted to shut down a legitimate congressional inquiry that might raise questions in part about whether their own people had aggressively pursued Al Qaeda in the days prior to the September 11 attacks. The vice president attempted to manipulate the situation, and he attempted to manipulate us." Graham added: "But if his goal was to get us to back off, he was unsuccessful."

Graham said that Goss shared his concerns. In 2003, according to Graham, he speculated to Goss that the White House had set them up in an effort to sabotage the joint September 11 congressional inquiry. Graham says that Goss responded: "I often wondered that myself."

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