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Criminal probe implicates Cheney subordinates

WASHINGTON - The FBI has traced the criminal exposure of a CIA covert agent to the office of Vice President Richard Cheney, according to the Insight on the News online wire service.

Richard Sale, a United Press International correspondent, quotes unnamed federal law enforcement officials in the Feb. 5 article that has been little-noted by mainstream U.S. media outlets. (Finally though, on Feb. 11, the English Manchester Guardian drew on some of Sale's information as a source for its own story. The Guardian reported that three of the five individuals under FBI scrutiny worked for Cheney.) These same mainstream outlets have kept the Valerie Plame case in circulation, so that the basic outline is well known. But Sale's report is early word on widespread speculation that Cheney subordinates leaked the name of an undercover CIA agent.

In a sequence of events first noted in the Washington Post and related exhaustively since, political columnist Robert Novak ended up revealing Plame's undercover CIA career in print. Novak followed a tip whose trail now leads to the U.S. executive branch. Plame associates and her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, say the exposure has jeopardized her person and canceled her career.

If proven, the leak to the press that "burned" Plame (in espionage slang) could have consequences for other careers too. (The Guardian, for instance, reported that Cheney's political career is at stake.) Under a 1982 law, it is a federal crime to leak classified information that exposes a covert CIA agent. A special prosecutor has been appointed in the Plame case, and according to many accounts at least one grand jury has been convened in connection with it. The Guardian identifies two parallel grand juries, one investigating the forgery of documents that helped foment war fever by alleging Iraqi nuclear armament efforts in Niger, the other looking at alleged bribery payments by oil giant Halliburton at a time when Cheney was its chief executive.

Sale now reports that the FBI is trying to impress the alleged Plame tipster with the gravity of the charges that could be filed against him.

If so, this course of action would be consistent with cases where a suspect ultimately pleads to reduced charges in return for information on superiors in the chain of command who were in position to influence the conduct of subordinates.

Wilson was a career ambassador, considered especially credible on matters North African, at the time of his 1998 retirement. In the build-up to making war on Iraq, the administration of President George W. Bush recruited Wilson to visit Niger, the African nation, in March 2002. His task was to check out intelligence reports that Iraq had sought to obtain uranium and nuclear tubing from Niger. The assertion had already made the varsity cut for inclusion in the president's State of the Union address that January, as he shaped the case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as an imminent threat justifying war. But Wilson discredited the information coming from Niger.

By all accounts, Wilson's report was unwelcome in the White House, more so when he published an op-ed accusing the administration of misrepresenting the facts on the ground in Niger, and by extension Iraq. Wilson has maintained that as the administration worked to keep America on a war footing, it moved to discredit his buzz-killing report on the Iraq-Niger nuclear connection. In the process, Plame's name made it into print in Novak's column as a CIA "operative on weapons of mass destruction."

Days later, in October now, President Bush termed the disclosure a criminal matter. The Department of Justice launched an investigation that eventually led to the appointment of a special prosecutor and FBI involvement.

The investigation's reach to the vice presidency is significant in that it has potential for introducing intentionality to the flawed intelligence that helped bring on war - intentional misrepresentation at the highest levels as opposed to lapses of information, communication and judgment at lower ones. To date these latter have formed the administration's public defense of its many statements on Iraqi capacity for mass destruction that have proved false. Cheney was a primary architect of the administration's uncompromising case for war.