WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney and his former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, were personally and actively involved in an effort to spin news coverage and discredit a critic of the Iraq war even before the fact that his wife was a CIA operative became public, a senior White House official testified yesterday.
In the first insider account of how top officials reacted when questions began to be raised about the intelligence used to justify the war, Catherine J. Martin said that at one point Cheney dictated a detailed list of talking points to be used by Libby and others in making calls to reporters. Martin was Cheney's top media aide at the time and is now deputy White House director of communications for policy and planning.
Martin testified as a prosecution witness at Libby's trial on charges of obstructing an investigation into how the name of a CIA operative became public. The operative, Valerie Plame, is the wife of former U.S. envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had written a government report questioning White House claims that Iraq had sought nuclear weapons material from the government of Niger - a report that the White House sought to discredit.
At the time Libby was questioned by federal agents, a grand jury was investigating how Plame's identity was leaked to reporters.
Martin said she learned that Plame worked for the CIA after Libby directed her to call the agency to get more information about a fact-finding trip Wilson had taken to Niger in February 2002. Martin said she quickly reported the information about Plame to Libby and Cheney.
Martin's statements buttressed the testimony of two former government officials who said earlier this week that they received urgent calls from Libby in June 2003 asking about Wilson and the trip. Martin was the third prosecution witness to tell the jury that she had told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA before it was publicly revealed in a syndicated column by Robert Novak on July 14, 2003.
Libby had told federal agents that he had first learned from journalists that Plame was a CIA officer.
On the third day of Libby's trial, Martin offered a rare glimpse behind the secrecy that has surrounded senior officials of the Bush administration involved in making and managing Iraq war policy. She described details of a White House media strategy, hatched at the highest levels, that sought to rebut charges that President Bush had misled the public in his 2003 State of the Union.
In making the case for war, Bush had asserted that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear material in Africa. Wilson had found the claim baseless and had asserted that Cheney had apparently authorized his fact-finding mission.
Martin said Cheney personally dictated talking points to be used in answering news media questions about Wilson's allegation that he had authorized a trip to Niger. The talking points included information from a secret National Intelligence Estimate.
Cheney ordered media aides to start tracking news coverage closely, she said, while Libby was directed to contact reporters.
At one point, she testified, Cheney gave a note card to Libby with information to give to a Time magazine reporter.
Martin also described how she and Libby discussed media "options" to rebut Wilson that included a strategic "leak" to a handful of reporters.
But Martin said that neither Cheney nor Libby had suggested that the identity of Plame be divulged as part of the game plan. She said that she had no knowledge of either actually doing so.
"I recall the vice president telling me to keep track of this story, and keep track of the commentators who were continuing to write on this story and talk about us," Martin testified. "We were paying attention to Hardball with Chris Matthews because he had been talking about it a lot."
She described the reaction inside the administration as questions began to be raised, starting in May 2003. At that time, The New York Times described the Wilson trip to Niger but did not name him. The article said the administration had engaged in a "campaign of wholesale deceit" and suggested Cheney was directly involved.
Martin said that Libby asked her to call William Harlow, then-chief public affairs officer at the CIA, to find out about the trip by the then-mysterious former envoy.
"So I was saying, 'Who sent him? Who is this guy?'" Martin testified. "I remember Bill Harlow saying his name was Joe Wilson, he was a charge in Baghdad, and his wife works over here." Martin said she promptly went to see Cheney and Libby with the news.
Wilson published an op-ed in The New York Times on July 6, 2003. The same day he aired his concerns on Meet the Press. Almost immediately, Martin said she was huddling again with Cheney about how to respond to a surge in press inquiries.
"He dictated to me what he wanted to say," Martin said. The detailed response covered eight separate points, including a reference to a sensitive intelligence community assessment.
Richard Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.