Pressure mounts on Cheney over smears against diplomat and 'outing' of CIA wife

Row that began with 'IoS' interview deepens as Vice-President's officials are accused of serious felony
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The Independent US

Vice-President Dick Cheney was under mounting pressure last night after he and his senior officials were accused of smearing a former ambassador and outing his wife as an undercover CIA officer in a deliberate act of revenge hatched inside the White House.

Vice-President Dick Cheney was under mounting pressure last night after he and his senior officials were accused of smearing a former ambassador and outing his wife as an undercover CIA officer in a deliberate act of revenge hatched inside the White House.

In a row which began with off-the-record comments he made to The Independent on Sunday last year, a former diplomat, Joe Wilson, said Mr Cheney oversaw a group of neo-conservatives who decided to try to damage his reputation. Because of Mr Wilson, the White House was forced to admit that a key claim in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address - that Iraq was seeking uranium for nuclear weapons - should not have been made.

The controversy over what happened next could prove to be the most damaging yet to engulf the Bush administration. A criminal inquiry is investigating the unveiling in the press of Mr Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent - a serious felony under US law. If one of Mr Cheney's senior officials were charged, the damage would be huge.

Should the Vice-President be personally implicated - which Mr Wilson believes he is - the outcome would be devastating for both Mr Cheney and Mr Bush as they campaign for re-election.

Mr Wilson has made his allegations in a newly published book, The Politics of Truth, subtitled "Inside the lies that led to war and betrayed my wife's CIA identity". In it he writes: "I am told ... that the Office of the Vice-President - either the Vice-President himself or more likely his chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby - chaired a meeting at which a decision was made to do a work-up on me. As I understand it, this meant they were going to take a close look at who I was and what my agenda might be."

The former diplomat has claimed elsewhere that it was also at this meeting that the issue of his wife's identity and her role as a covert CIA operative was discussed. Mr Wilson said he believed it was very unlikely that Mr Cheney was not aware of this.

In an exclusive interview in his office in Washington, just a quarter of a mile from Mr Cheney's, he said: "I find it difficult to believe that a chief of staff would be undertaking something like this without - at a minimum - the Vice-President's knowledge." Mr Wilson stopped short of asking for Mr Cheney's resignation, but said: "If he [did not know] about it, he should be saying so. The leak took place at the nexus of national security, policy and politics."

His struggle with the White House dates to a mission in early 2002, at the request of Mr Cheney's office. He was sent to the west African state of Niger, where he was once ambassador, to investigate claims that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium to develop nuclear weapons. The claims were based on a document obtained by Italian intelligence services, which had passed the information to Washington.

In less than a week Mr Wilson proved that the claim was false and that the document must be a fake. Returning to Washington, he reported this to a debriefer from the CIA. Later, experts from the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed the document was a crude forgery. But when Mr Bush and his senior officials continued to make the claim - first publicised in the British Government's September 2002 dossier on Iraq - he felt it was his duty to speak out. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, in which he asked that he not be identified, and subsequently in a signed piece in The New York Times, Mr Wilson pointed out that it was inconceivable that senior US and British officials were not aware of his findings.

After he went public, his wife was identified as a CIA operative by the syndicated right-wing columnist Bob Novak, a veteran Washington journalist with close links to the Republicans. It was her suggestion to send Mr Wilson to Africa, claimed Mr Novak, who said in his column he had been provided with the information by "two senior administration officials".

The leaking of an intelligence officer's identity is a criminal offence. An FBI team is investigating the leak and has called a grand jury to hear evidence and question potential witnesses. Earlier this year it was reported that Mr Libby and numerous other officials from Mr Cheney's office had been questioned by the FBI. Mr Wilson alleges that it was Mr Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove, who was responsible for "pushing" the story of Ms Plame's CIA position, and that a senior national security council official, Elliott Abrams, may also have been involved.

The White House has been very careful in its remarks on the affair, insisting that Mr Rove, Mr Elliott and Mr Libby were "not involved in leaking classified information". It has stopped short of an outright denial. One reason the White House may have been keen to smear Mr Wilson is because it knew his allegations would be taken seriously. In the run-up to the first Gulf War he helped to secure the release of US citizens taken hostage by Saddam Hussein. He was the last US official to meet Saddam while he was in power.

Mr Wilson told the IoS that his wife still worked for the CIA, but that her work had been severely disrupted. He said that she might also be at risk from anyone who wished to harm her because of her previous undercover work.

"It has been irredeemably changed," he said, adding that his wife felt she had been a victim of the political ambitions of senior officials within the administration.

Serialisation of 'The Politics of Truth' begins in 'The Independent' tomorrow