In the prosecution that led to the conviction of former Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, Patrick Fitzgerald famously spoke of a “cloud over the vice president.” His remarks suggested that, while no charges had been pressed against Cheney, the vice president was considered an unindicted co-conspirator in a scheme to out covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. When, after a long struggle to protect Cheney from “embarrassment,” the Justice Department complied with a court order to disclose the FBI agents’ notes of the interview that Fitzgerald conducted with Cheney in 2004, the reason for these comments became clear. The cloud over Dick Cheney seems to be more of a fog bank engulfing him, however, and the fog is of Cheney’s making.
Cheney has been famous for decades for his steel-trap mind and near perfect recall. Yet in an interview that lasted only a couple of hours, Cheney competed with Alberto Gonzales for the selective amnesia prize. His memory failed him more than seventy times, on virtually every effort to probe anything of substance that had occurred within the prior year. Contemporaneous documents show that Cheney had been obsessing over these matters. Yet even when he was shown documents bearing his own handwritten comments, he had no recollection. His amnesia dovetailed perfectly with Scooter Libby’s forgetfulness on key points. Libby couldn’t recall having discussed Plame with Cheney, and Cheney couldn’t recall having discussed Plame with Libby. Their testimony seems well orchestrated, and the text of those “can’t recalls” is well designed to make a perjury prosecution difficult if the prosecutors should turn up solid proof to the contrary.
Nick Baumann has cobbled together a list of twenty-two major points on which Cheney’s memory suddenly went all fuzzy. A review shows just how programmatic that memory failure was. It covered anything that would have put the investigators on to Cheney’s role in the Plame outing.
The prosecution of Scooter Libby rested on his equally convenient lapses of memory. In the end, a Washington jury concluded that Libby had lied and convicted him. Would this same jury have believed Cheney’s claims of failed memory? They strike me as even less credible than Libby’s. Moreover, the interview notes will fuel suspicion that Libby took the fall for his boss.
There’s another significant nugget in the interview notes, flagged by Marcy Wheeler. Reports had previously circulated to the effect that Bush Administration figures had cooperated with the prosecution by executing release agreements–allowing journalists with whom they had spoken to talk freely with investigators about their discussions. On Friday, we learned that Dick Cheney refused to execute such releases. It’s been widely speculated that Cheney spoke with a number of journalists on the Plame-Wilson matter–probably Bob Novack and Judith Miller, possibly others. In holding his journalist friends to confidentiality, what was he worried about? This is particularly curious in view of the blistering attacks Cheney unleashed on Congress in 2002-06, in which he questioned their tendency to leak information to the press. How many congressmen could compete on that score with Dick Cheney?
Wheeler also points out that Cheney refused to answer Fitzgerald’s questions about his spontaneous declassification of data for purposes of trashing Joe Wilson, Plame’s husband. But just a short while later, Cheney’s attorney leaked all the details of this process to Newsweek’s Mike Isikoff. This perfectly demonstrates how Cheney views executive privilege–it was invoked to a criminal investigation in which he was in danger of being prosecuted, but it didn’t stand in the way of a good leak to the press when he felt it would help him with the Washington punditry. Secrecy in the world of Cheney is wielded for tactical political and personal purposes, not in the lofty national interest.
Cheney and his daughter have been sweating bullets about the prospect of a criminal investigation. These notes make clear that they have plenty to be worried about.