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Old June 6th 04, 05:34 AM
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Cheney Faces Grilling Over Leak as Bush Election Hopes Slump

Scandal of naming undercover CIA agent engulfs Vice-President and puts
pressure on White House

Paul Harris in New York
Sunday June 6, 2004
The Observer

The growing sense of crisis within the Bush administration over the
aftermath of the Iraq conflict deepened yesterday after it emerged that
Vice-President Dick Cheney has been questioned as part of the
intelligence scandals engulfing American politics.

He has been interviewed as part of a probe into the leaking last year of
the identity of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of ex-diplomat
Joe Wilson, a vocal critic of the administration in the build-up to the
Iraq war, especially claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass

News of Cheney's grilling follows the resignation of CIA chief George
Tenet and will add to the pressure on a Republican party already sinking
in the polls. George Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low of
42 per cent, dangerously close to the 40 per cent level seen as the
point beneath which victory is unlikely.

Cheney, a hate figure for liberals due to his corporate contacts in the
defence industry, was questioned about his knowledge of anyone on his
staff who may have leaked Plame's name. It is not believed that Cheney
himself is the suspect in the leak, a federal crime that carries the
risk of a jail sentence.

However, intelligence sources have pinpointed the leak as coming from
Cheney's office. His chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, has been
named in several press reports as a possible suspect. It is also
believed that the investigation has pulled phone records from Air Force
One as part of their probe. Observers think that Plame's identity was
deliberately leaked to conservative newspaper columnist Bob Novak as a
way of punishing her husband. 'It came out of Cheney's office. These are
a very serious group of people,' said Mel Goodman, a former top CIA

The case is reaching high into the halls of power. Bush himself last
week consulted a private lawyer, Jim Sharp, in case he is questioned. In
a worrying echo of previous scandals, Sharp once worked as counsel in
the Iran-Contra hearings during the 1980s scandal that almost wrecked
Ronald Reagan's presidency. The probe is now the hot talk of
Washington's corridors of power amid intense speculation that charges
will be brought. 'If they can get the proof, someone will pay for it,'
said Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent and senior counter-terrorism
official at the State Department.

The case is just one of several intelligence scandals. The Pentagon is
being probed over the activities of Ahmed Chalabi, who helped to provide
much of the information used as a basis for invading Iraq. He is now
thought to have passed secrets to Iran, including news that the US had
broken Iranian intelligence codes. FBI investigators have used
lie-detector tests on Pentagon officials to determine who passed secrets
to Chalabi. Two other investigation reports, one from the 11 September
Commission and another from the Senate, are also due in the next month
and are expected to slam US intelligence-gathering in Iraq.

As negative news swamped the Bush campaign, his Democratic opponent,
John Kerry, has kept a low profile. Democrat strategists believe news
events alone are derailing Bush and recent poll numbers have added to
the sense of Republican crisis. One survey showed almost 20 per cent of
Republicans were considering not voting for Bush.

'That is a very serious problem,' said John Zogby, head of polling firm
Zogby International. One of America's most respected pollsters, Zogby
believes Bush's numbers are so bad that the election has become Kerry's
to lose.

Last week Bush met religious groups to revive a stalled plan to
encourage faith organisations to bid for government money to run charity
projects. The move is controversial for blurring the lines between
church and state, but is popular with conservative Christians.

Bush's lurch to the right has opened up chasms in the previously united
Republican party. Moderates are becoming increasingly vocal in their
criticism. Central to this group is Arizona Senator John McCain, a
Vietnam war hero and rival to Bush for the 2000 presidential nomination.

Speculation is rife that McCain could be lured over to the Democrats as
Kerry's running mate. McCain has dismissed the idea, but sources close
to the senator said that he would probably consider any offer. 'He is a
real rogue,' said one source.


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