Friday, February 03, 2006

The special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, Patrick Fitzgerald, has indicated in correspondence unsealed in federal court in recent days that President Bush might have been briefed regarding former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s February 2002 CIA-sponsored mission to Niger during regular morning intelligence briefing.

The information provided to Bush occurred in the form of one of the “President’s Daily Briefs,” a typically 30-to 45-minute early-morning national security briefing. They are a compiliation of that day's most closely held and highly classified intelligence-- and written specifically for the "First Customer", meaning the President of the United States. Information for PDBs has routinely been derived from electronic intercepts, human agents, and reports from foreign intelligence services.

The information about Bush having been briefed about Wilson’s mission to Niger is contained in court papers filed in federal court. Attorneys for I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, President Bush’s former chief of staff and national security advisors, were seeking information about presidential PDBs from the special prosecutor, as part of a discovery effort to defend their client.

Libby was forced to resign his White House positions last Oct. 28, after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on five counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice, for outing Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as an undercover CIA officer. The indictment alleged that Libby provided information to a reporter about Plame’s CIA employment because in an effort to retaliate against her husband for criticizing the Bush administration’s use of intelligence during the run up to war in Iraq.

Libby appeared this morning in federal court, during which the trial judge, Federal District Judge Reggie B. Walton, set a trial date for Jan.8, 2007. Walton wanted to try the case this next September—which could have had political consequences had Libby been tried so close to the 2006 mid-term congressional elections. But one of Libby’s attorneys, Theodore Wells, says that he was going to be tied up with another case.

In court papers made public late last week, Fitzgerald revealed that there was information regarding Wilson’s mission to Niger contained in at least one PDB, or possibly more, although the special prosecutor provided no specifics of the specific intelligence information that was contained in the ordinarily highly classified briefing materials.

In a letter that Fitzgerald sent Libby’s attorneys on January 9, 2006, and filed in federal court late last week, Fitzgerald wrote: “As you are well aware, the documents referred to as Presidential Daily Briefs (“PDBs”) are extraordinarily sensitive documents which are usually highly classified. We have never requested copies of any PDBs. However, we did ask for relevant documents relating to Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife; Valerie Plame Wilson... and the trip undertaken by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in 2002... from the Executive Branch of the President and the Office of the Vice President.

“We also sought from the Central Intelligence Agency documents relating to the same item.... relating to the same items, with the exception that the CIA was not requested to produce documents in the files regarding Valerie Plame and Wilson that were not related directly or indirectly to Ambassador Wilson’s travel to Niger in February 2002.

“In response to our requests, we have received a very discrete amount of material relating to PDBs. We have provided to Mr. Libby and his counsel (or are in the process of providing such documents consistent with the process of a declassification review) copies of any pages in our possession reflecting discussions with Joseph Wilson, Valerie Wilson and/or Wilson’s trip to Niger contained in (or written on) copies of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) in the redacted form in which we received them.”

An attorney representing Libby did not return a phone call from reporters seeking comment regarding their discovery request. A White House spokesperson said they would have no comment because Fitzgerald’s criminal investigation is still an ongoing matter.

Although Fitzgerald did not provide any information as to what President Bush might have been told during his morning intelligence briefing about Wilson’s Niger mission, what is told the President is often similar or parallel to what is provided to Vice President Cheney during his own intelligence briefings. Information contained in PDBs also areoften times similar to that in a highly classified intelligence report known as a Senior Executive Intelligence Brief, or SEIB. Those reports are provided to the Vice President, National Security Council, cabinet Secretaries, and other senior national advisers to the President.

On October 18, 2001, only five weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the CIA circulated a particularly alarming intelligence SEIB raising the specter that Iraq was attempting to covertly uranium from the African nation of Niger to build an atomic weapon.

“According to a foreign government service,” said the report, “Niger as of early this year planned to send several tones of uranium to Iraq under an agreement concluded late this year. Iraq and Niger have been negotiating the shipment since at least 1999, but the state court of Niger only this year approved of it, according to the service."

The report also included this particularly chilling prospect: “The quality of yellowcake to be transferred could support the enrichment of enough uranium for at least one nuclear weapon.”
It is doubtful that this was the information that was told to the President during his morning briefing, however, because Wilson had not yet ventured to Niger on behalf of the CIA.

A much more likely possibility is that Bush, like Vice President Cheney, was told in late June, 2003, that the CIA no longer considered “credible” allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to have ever procured uranium from Niger or any other African nation in an attempt to build a nuclear weapon.

As my National Journal story first disclosed yesterday, then-CIA director George Tenet received a highly classified memo on June 17, 2003, on the Niger matter from his analysts warning that allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation were to no longer to be believed.

In the memo, the CIA analysts wrote: "Since learning that the Iraqi-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq purchased uranium from abroad."

The memo also related that there had been other, earlier claims that Saddam's regime had attempted to purchase uranium from private interests in Somalia and Benin; these claims predated the Niger allegations. It was that past intelligence that had led CIA analysts, in part, to consider the Niger claims as plausible. But the memo said that after a thorough review of those earlier reports, the CIA had concluded that they were no longer credible. Indeed, the previous intelligence reports citing those claims had long since been "recalled" -- meaning that the CIA had formally repudiated them.

Within days after Tenet received the memo, the CIA provided the information contained in it to both Cheney and Libby in briefings on the matter. The congressional Senate and House Intelligence Committees received similar briefings on June 18 and June 19, 2003, according to government records.

Two senior government officials suggested that it was likely that Bush would have also been similarly briefed, because Cheney, Libby, Tenet, and the Senate and House Senate committees had been at the time, and also because the issue of Wilson’s trip to Niger was being discussed in the media and Capitol Hill. Said one official: “It would have just made sense, that this was have recycled to the President too... There is a lot of similarity as to what the President and Vice President are briefed about.”

Despite having been briefed on the CIA’s findings, Cheney continued to defend the Niger allegations as possibly still credible. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sept. 14, 2003, at least two and half months after having been told of the CIA’s new conclusions, Cheney said: “[O]n the whole thing, the question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa—In the British report, this week, the Committee of the British Parliament, which just spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated their claim that Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa. What was in the State of the Union speech and what was in the original British White papers. So there may be difference of opinion there. I don’t know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that.”

Meanwhile, Dan Froomkin this afternoon has more on everything Plame and Libby.

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