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Saturday, October 29, 2005

In Indictment's Wake, a Focus on Cheney's Powerful Role - New York Times

In Indictment's Wake, a Focus on Cheney's Powerful Role - New York TimesOctober 30, 2005
The Vice President
In Indictment's Wake, a Focus on Cheney's Powerful Role
By ELISABETH BUMILLER and ERIC SCHMITT

WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 - Vice President Dick Cheney makes only three brief appearances in the 22-page federal indictment that charges his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, with lying to investigators and misleading a grand jury in the C.I.A. leak case. But in its clear, cold language, it lifts a veil on how aggressively Mr. Cheney's office drove the rationale against Saddam Hussein and then fought to discredit the Iraq war's critics.

The document now raises a central question: how much collateral damage has Mr. Cheney sustained?

Many Republicans say that Mr. Cheney, already politically weakened because of his role in preparing the case for war, could be further damaged if he is forced to testify about the infighting over intelligence that turned out to be false. At the least, they say, his office will be temporarily off balance with the resignation of Mr. Libby, who controlled both foreign and domestic affairs in a vice presidential office that has served as a major policy arm for the West Wing.

"Cheney has had a tight, effective team, and they have been an incredible support system for the presidency," said Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "To the degree that that support system is weakened, it's a bad day at the office. But no person is indispensable." For now, David Addington, the vice president's counsel, is the leading candidate to replace Mr. Libby.

Mr. Cheney's allies noted that there was no suggestion in the indictment that the most powerful vice president in American history, with enormous influence into all important corners of administration policy, had done anything wrong. They also said that Mr. Libby, whose role has been diminished in the past year as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became more powerful and the leak investigation took its toll, could be quickly replaced from the vice president's large Rolodex of support.

"His reach within both the party mechanism and the policy structures of the government is so deep that I believe that it is possible to find somebody who would provide the technical and intellectual support that Libby did, even if he doesn't have the same personal relationship that he had with Libby," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican with White House ties. "That's very hard to duplicate."

The indictment against Mr. Libby, known as Scooter, alleges that the vice president's office was the hub of a concerted effort to gather information about key critics of the Bush Iraq policy. [Page 28.]

The larger question, Republicans said, was Mr. Cheney's standing with the public - and what his staff has often called the vice president's constituency of one, Mr. Bush.

Christine Todd Whitman, the president's former EPA administrator and a longtime Bush family friend who was critical of the White House and the Republican right wing in a recent book, said that she did not expect the president's personal relationship with Mr. Cheney to change. Nonetheless, she said she believed that if more information about Mr. Cheney's involvement in the leak case becomes public, "and if it keeps hanging around and getting close to the vice president, he might step aside - but that's an extreme case."

For now, she said, "Scooter has fallen on his sword, and the focus is on him."

Paul Light, a vice presidential scholar at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, agreed that Mr. Cheney's relationship with Mr. Bush will likely remain solid, but the taint of the scandal could hurt the vice president outside the White House.

"Cheney becomes a bit of an albatross except with the base, where he's a real rock star," Mr. Light said. "It'll be less possible for him to make campaign trips because this issue will dog him."

A number of influential Republicans agreed, although they did not want to speak for attribution for fear of harming their relationships with Mr. Cheney.

"Cheney doesn't have a legal problem, but he has a political problem," said one Republican close to the White House who did not want to be named to avoid public quarrels with the White House. "As the driving force on foreign policy and the Iraq war, his leadership is now nowhere near as credible. Bush has got to approach the stuff coming from the vice president's office with raised eyebrows."

Others said that Mr. Cheney was far too central at the White House to be diminished by the scandal. "He's a survivor of all time," said Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming and a longtime friend of the vice president. "I never saw him bow his head or go into a cocoon or suck his thumb or anything like that. He's an unflappable man."

Former Senator Warren B. Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire, agreed with that assessment. "Look, Dick Cheney is not running for anything, he's obviously an incredibly important person in the administration, and I don't think that will change inside the White House," Mr. Rudman said. "If he were a normal vice president looking to run in '08, then it would be a totally different situation."

Most Republicans said that they had not taken seriously recent talk, advanced by conservatives, that Mr. Cheney should be the next Republican presidential candidate. In any case, they said, his history of heart problems, the faulty pre-war intelligence and now Mr. Libby's indictment effectively ruled out a political future beyond Mr. Bush's second term. "He's too controversial," Ms. Whitman said.

Although Mr. Cheney makes only three appearances in the indictment, the episodes tell a story of a vice president directly involved in an effort to learn about Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who emerged in 2003 as a critic of the way the administration used prewar intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. The episodes do not shed light on the action that set off the special prosecutor nearly two years ago: who first leaked the name of Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Wilson, an undercover officer at the C.I.A., as an attempt to denigrate Mr. Wilson's trip as a nepotistic junket arranged by his spouse.

Mr. Cheney's most interesting appearance in the indictment is on Page 5, where he is described as telling Mr. Libby, on June 12, 2003, that Mr. Wilson's wife worked at the C.I.A. in the counterproliferation division. "Libby understood that the vice president had learned this information from the C.I.A.," the indictment states.

Mr. Cheney also appears on Page 8, when he flew with Mr. Libby and others on Air Force Two on July 12, 2003, to Norfolk, Va. On the return trip, the indictment states, Mr. Libby "discussed with other officials aboard the plane" what he should say to reporters in response to "certain pending media inquiries," including questions from Matthew Cooper of Time magazine.

The indictment does not say who the "other officials" are or the nature of the media inquiries, but it does say that on that same day Mr. Libby spoke to Mr. Cooper, and that he confirmed that he had heard that Mr. Wilson's wife was involved in sending him on the trip.

The indictment comes as other parts of the wall that was built around Mr. Cheney's defense of the war have come tumbling down. Earlier this month, Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin L. Powell while he was secretary of state, complained in a speech of a "cabal" between Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld when it came to Iraq and of a "real dysfunctionality" in the administration's foreign policy team.

The indictment also serves as fresh evidence to those Republicans who have known Mr. Cheney for decades and say he has changed, and that he reacted to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by becoming consumed with threats against the nation and his long-time desire to rid Iraq of Mr. Hussein. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush, said as much in The New Yorker's current issue.

"I consider Cheney a good friend - I've known him for thirty years," Mr. Scowcroft told Jeffrey Goldberg. "But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."

Some Republicans say that Mr. Cheney's relationship with Mr. Bush has already changed, and that he has become less of a mentor to the president after Mr. Bush's nearly five years in office. Still, Mr. Cheney's allies insist that, with or without Mr. Libby, Mr. Cheney will be at the president's side.

"I don't think it's ever been about Cheney's staff," said Victoria Clarke, a former Pentagon spokeswoman and aide to President George H. W. Bush. "It's about him. Cheney's influence has always been his own."

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