There's been a lot of recent discussion about the substance of Scooter Libby's complaint to Tim Russert on July 10, 2003. TalkLeft was among the first to pinpoint Tweety's July 8 show as the source of contention. Michael Smerconish got Tweety to all but admit that Libby was complaining about his show. Crooks and Liars catch Russert refusing to verify that fact. Mickey Kaus suggests Russert does not want to talk about it because Libby may have called Tweety an anti-semite. And Tom Maguire reflects at length on whether Libby might believe Wilson was an anti-semite.
I'd like to take a slightly different approach and look at a few other examples when Scooter Libby got pissy at the press--and how he and Dick responded. At the least, it provides an important background to some of the tensions surrounding the Plame leak. But, as Smerconish captures Tweety's description, it also may reveal the hair trigger with which Libby and Dick treat the press.
"So, having pulled this masterful move of moving the undecided middle into the war, they then became very sensitive to the charge by Joseph Wilson that they had done the very thing, pushed the nuclear button and then covered up any threat to that nuclear button, and Wilson was that threat, and then, going volcanic against anybody including me, who dared to say, 'Wait a minute, there is a pattern here of how we got into the war, and how they promoted the nuclear case and how they protected the nuclear case against Wilson.'
"They didn't like me doing that. I know that a number of administration officials were screaming at my network at all levels about me raising this issue, the very points I've just made. They don't like hearing it, Libby is in trouble now because he doesn't like hearing it, the vice president is very much a part of this, and the answer to your question is that you are on the right trail, Michael."
In the past, when they have lost control of the narrative, Dick and Libby have responded with a figurative and literal nuclear button to regain the upper hand. Perhaps the decision to out Plame as a covert operative--going far beyond the insinuation that Wilson was chosen out of nepotism--was Libby's version of the nuclear button that week.
Libby complains to Armitage
There are two references in Woodward's Plan of Attack to times when Libby got aggravated with the press coverage. In the first, Libby chases down the people he seems to think mentioned his name--Armitage and Powell.
In the days after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the New York Times ran a front page story on the debate in the Bush administration over whether to go after Iraq in the first wave of military attacks in the war on terrorism. Headlined "Bush's Advisers Split on Scope of Retaliation," the story reported Powell to be opposed, while Wolfowitz and Libby were listed as pressing the case for Iraq. It was an unusual appearance of his name in the newspaper, and he was excruciatingly uncomfortable. The reporters had not called him for comment, and he felt the leak was "scandalous." He tried to tell others that the story was "untrue." Asked if it was "totally untrue," he responded with a lawyerly parsing of language. "It's not totally untrue, but untrue." He had not spoken about Iraq in the large NSC meeting but as he put it, "there were confabs on the margins."
Libby went to see Armitage. "I'm used to seeing Powell's name in print," Libby said, "I didn't like to see my name next to him, particularly in that context. And I don't have a dog in that fight."
"You want me to tell the secretary this?" Armitage asked.
"I'll do it," Armitage said, "I'll do it faithfully, but it's not a personal fight. This is about business. And how we do the nation's business, Scooter." (50)
It's not entirely clear Armitage is the source for this article. It twice mentions someone who might be Armitage.
''We can't solve everything in one blow,'' said an administration official who has sided with Secretary Powell.
One account of last weekend's private discussion among Mr. Bush and his senior aides suggested a tense exchange occurred when Mr. Wolfowitz made the the case for a broad and early campaign, including bombing Iraq. Secretary Powell said targeting Iraq and Saddam Hussein would ''wreck'' the coalition.
But the story is sourced to several people, which suggests the reference to Libby may have come from any number of people (unless, of course, Libby knows only Armitage witnessed Libby's own comments).
No matter. Libby responds to the article by implicitly demanding that Armitage and Powell refrain from bringing him--Libby--into press reports, even while he engages them in battle over policy. It's as if Libby is asking them to voluntarily disarm while he increases the attacks against them.
Condi complains to the NYT
The other reference to Libby's anger with the press is more ominous. A recent New York Observer article provides one description of the problem.
In late August of 2002, David Sanger, White House correspondent for The New York Times, found himself in the far west wing of the West Wing: at President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Tex. There, in what must have been a fairly routine meeting with then–National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, he was told in no uncertain terms what the White House had thought of much of The Times’ reporting on the President’s Iraq policy that summer. They were not happy.
What was Ms. Rice so mad about? In mid-August of 2002, The Times came under fire for back-to-back front-page pieces calling out top Republicans who had broken ranks with the administration over support of an Iraq invasion. The first piece, which ran on Aug. 16 and was co-written by Patrick Tyler and Todd Purdum, included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in an influential camp of dissenting Republicans—such as former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft—who were opposing Mr. Bush’s planned military operation in Iraq. The next day, Elisabeth Bumiller attributed anti-war views to Mr. Kissinger in a piece with a Crawford, Tex., dateline.
But Woodward portrays Dick and Libby--not Condi--as the two aggrieved parties behind the complaint.
The Observer story tells us a little about how Dick and Libby responded to this article. They had Condi complain to the NYT. And they got their right wing allies to attack the NYT.
The New York Times had made the Scowcroft and Kissinger positions the lead article on their front page on August 16: "Top Republicans Break with Bush on Iraq Strategy." It was a misinterpretation of Kissinger's remarks, which more or less backed Bush. The Times eventually ran a correction, but Cheney and his deputy, Scooter Libby, found the article extremely aggravating. The correction would never catch up with the front page headline, and Scowcroft's dissent was indisputable and more potent. It looked as if the march to war was put off. (163)
So Dick and Libby led a two-fronted attack on the NYT to get them to retract their depiction of Kissinger's stance--they had Condi complain directly and they had the NYT attacked in the media.An item in the Aug. 26 issue of The Weekly Standard lashed into The Times for putting Mr. Kissinger in the category of people who didn’t support the war. The opening line: “There’s nothing subtle about the opposition of the New York Times to President Bush’s plan for military action to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”The Times took a drubbing from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, columnist Charles Krauthammer and George Will speaking on ABC’s This Week.
Then came Mr. Sanger’s meeting with Ms. Rice.
On Sept. 4, The Times printed an editor’s note clarifying its characterization of Mr. Kissinger’s views in the piece by Ms. Bumiller.
I also wonder whether this incident is the one that got Dick's daughter Liz involved. As the LAT reported earlier this year Liz Cheney once excluded an NYT reporter because of Dick's unhappiness with NYT coverage.
Dick makes policy
Writing from her Blackberry, a mobile e-mail device, she noted that her father was upset with a story that appeared in that morning's newspaper, saying: "vp has totally had it with nytimes. This is really not the right time to ask him to charm a reporter from that paper."
The reporter was excluded from the vice president's plane.
In addition to the direct badgering of the press, Dick did something more. Having lost control of the narrative about the war, he basically pre-empted Bush's stated policy.
Cheney decided that everyone was offering an opinion except the administration. There was no stated administration position and he wanted to put one out, make a big speech if necessary. It was highly unusual for the vice president to speak on such a major issue before the president, who was going to address the U.N. on Iraq on September 12. But Cheney couldn't wait. Nature and Washington policy debates abhor a vacuum. He was not going to cede the field to Scowcroft, Baker, a misinterpreted Kissinger--or Powell. He spoke privately with the president, who gave his okay without reviewing the details of what Cheney might say.
At an NSC meeting, Cheney said to the president, "Well, I'm going to give that speech."
"Don't get me in trouble," Bush half-joked.
Trouble is what Cheney had in mind.
"Cheney Says Peril of a Nuclear Iraq Justifies Attack," read the headline in The New York Times on the morning of August 27. Powell was dumbfounded. The vice president had delivered a hard-line address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville and basically called weapons inspections futile.
The vice president also issued his own personal National Intelligence Estimate of Saddam: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us." Ten days earlier the president himself had said only that Saddam "desires" these weapons. Neither Bush nor the CIA had made any assertion comparable to Cheney's.
These remarks, just short of a declaration of war, were widely interpreted as administration policy. (163-4)
Woodward makes it clear that Dick doesn't tell Bush what he is going to say. But it appears from the SSCI Report, Cheney also doesn't tell the CIA what he is going to say (either that, or he refused to reveal to the Senate how the CIA responded to drafts of his speech). There is no mention of this August 26 speech at all in the SSCI report. And in its description of the vetting for Bush's UN speech, the SSCI Report suggests CIA was approving much more cautious language for the President.
In a written response to questions from Committee staff, the White House said that on September 11, 2002, National Security Council (NSC) staff contacted the CIA to clear language for possible use in a statement for use by the President. The language cleared by the CIA said, "Iraq has made several attempts to buy high strength aluminum tubes used in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. And we also know this: within the past few years, Iraq has resumed efforts to obtain large quantities of a type of uranium oxide known as yellowcake, which is an essential ingredient of this process. The regime was caught trying to purchase 500 metric tons of this material. It takes about 10 tons to produce enough enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon." The text was identical to the text proposed by the White House except that the CIA had suggested adding "up to" before 500 metric tons. The President never used the approved language publicly. [emphasis mine]
So, in response to Scowcroft's and Powell's public opposition to war, Dick apparently made unfounded accusations that Iraq had WMD and that it was planning to use them. He criticized using inspectors, even though that was Bush's stated policy at the time. And he left the impression that this was the policy of the administration.
A chastened NYT calls it the way Dick sees it
It's worth examining, too, the nice bit of press jujitsu Dick pulled off. The NYT article covering this speech was co-bylined by Elisabeth Bumiller, one of the reporters who had come under Condi's wrath for the earlier article on Kissinger. Apparently she learned her lesson, because she includes all of Dick's refutations of Scowcroft's, Kissinger's, and Powell's position.
And she presents Cheney's position as representative of the administration's.
Administration officials said Mr. Cheney's views mirrored those of President Bush, and were part of an ongoing effort to convince the allies, Congress and the American public of the need for what the administration calls regime change in Iraq.
(Any guesses on who those administration officials are? You think one of them might be named Scooter?)
Further, she portrays the speech as a complete accounting of real intelligence on Iraq.
Republicans said Mr. Cheney's speech, planned since early August, was intended to lay out the most serious and complete case for an attack on Iraq.
The speech appeared intended in particular to answer critics who say the administration lacks intelligence data on Iraq's nuclear abilities.
In other words, after having received a tongue-lashing from the administration, Bumiller got into line and published nearly exactly the article that Dick--but not necessarily Bush--wanted. So I guess you can say Dick and Libby got precisely the response they wanted for their attack on press coverage.
Implications for the Plame Affair
Which brings us back to the Plame Affair.The story the administration--and particularly Libby--have told so far is one of an attempt to reel the press back in from their Wilson coverage. Pincus says he thought the person who leaked to him was trying to get him to stop writing about Wilson. Cooper and Rove both testified that Rove was trying to warn Cooper off of the Wilson story. While Libby says he heard of Plame from Russert and Russert apparently says Libby didn't, it seems clear that Libby was calling to complain about press coverage. (Following this pattern, it would seem likely that Libby told Russert about Plame, as Rove had told Cooper and Mr. X had told Pincus:since Russert only testifed about what he (Russert) said, it's possible that Libby told Russert something in the middle of complaining.) So in some ways, the attack on Plame was an attempt on Libby's part to cow the press again, to get the coverage he wanted.
I say in some ways. But not, apparently, with Judy. (Or, assuredly, Novak.) Sure, Libby complained about the press coverage to Judy too. But he wasn't trying to get her to back off reporting she had done--she hadn't written a story. He can only have told her because--as is depicted in his indictment--he was shopping a different story, a more aggressive one.
When Dick and Libby have lost control of the narrative, they've made rash moves. As when Dick, writing US policy and intelligence unilaterally, rebutted Scowcroft's and Kissinger's stances.
I suspect that when Dick and Libby lost control of the narrative about Joe Wilson on July 6, they made two moves. They started shopping the "Plame the WMD analyst getting Wilson the job" story to reporters who were actively pursuing the story, in an attempt to get them to back off the story (and, curiously, those are the journalists they primarily crafted their "I learned from the journalists" story around). And, to a few select journalists, they were attempting to seed the "Plame as covert operative" story. Like writing intelligence unilaterally, Libby and Dick resorted to their own nuclear button.