Ex-Cheney Aide Details Media Tactics
Ex-Cheney Aide Details Media Tactics
Jan 27, 10:05 PM (ET)
By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN
WASHINGTON (AP) - A smorgasbord of Washington insider
details has emerged during the perjury trial of the
vice president's former chief of staff.
For example, when Dick Cheney really needed friends in
the news media, his staff was short of phone numbers.
No one served up spicier morsels than Cheney's former
top press assistant. Cathie Martin described the craft
of media manipulation - under oath and in blunter
terms than politicians like to hear in public.
The uses of leaks and exclusives. When to let one's
name be used and when to hide in anonymity. Which news
medium was seen as more susceptible to control and
what timing was most propitious. All candidly
described. Even the rating of certain journalists as
friends to favor and critics to shun - a faint echo of
the enemies list drawn up in Richard Nixon's White
House more than 30 years ago.
The trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby owes its very
existence to a news leak, the public disclosure four
summers ago of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity.
A private brainstorm of Plame's in 2002 brought a rain
of public attacks on Cheney the following year. Cheney
was accused of suppressing intelligence and allowing
President Bush to present false information about
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Plame's husband, ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, started
the attack. Her unit at the CIA had sent him to Niger
in 2002 to check a report Iraq was buying uranium for
nuclear weapons. Cheney and the departments of State
and Defense wanted to verify that.
Wilson thought he had debunked the report, but Bush
mentioned it anyway in his State of the Union address
in 2003. The story helped justify war with Iraq.
Wilson claimed Cheney's questions prompted his trip
and Cheney should have received his report long before
Wilson's charges first surfaced, attributed to an
unnamed ex-ambassador, in Nicholas Kristof's New York
Times column. But Martin testified she felt no urgency
to set him straight because Kristof "attacked us, our
administration fairly regularly."
But by July 6, 2003, Wilson wrote his own account in
the Times and appeared on "Meet the Press" on NBC.
After that much exposure, Cheney, Libby and Martin
spent the next week trying get out word that Cheney
did not know Wilson, did not ask for the mission to
Niger, never got Wilson's report and only learned
about the trip from news stories in 2003.
Cheney personally dictated these points to Martin. She
e-mailed them to the White House press secretary for
relay to reporters.
When the story did not die, Martin found herself in a
bind because Cheney's office was known for disclosing
"Often the press stopped calling our office," Martin
testified. "At this point, they weren't calling me
asking me for comment."
So she had to call National Security Council and CIA
press officers to learn which reporters were still
working on stories.
Once Martin got names, Cheney ordered his right-hand
man, Libby, rather than lowly press officers, to call
- a signal of the topic's importance.
Top levels of the Bush administration decided that CIA
Director George Tenet would issue a statement taking
the blame for allowing Bush to mention the Niger
story. Cheney and Libby worried Tenet would not go far
enough to distance the vice president from the affair.
Libby asked Martin to map a media strategy in case
Tenet fell short.
A Harvard law school graduate, Martin had succeeded
legendary Republican operative Mary Matalin as
Cheney's political and public affairs assistant.
Matalin had brought Martin to Cheney's office as her
deputy and trained her.
Martin offered these options in order:
_Put Cheney on "Meet the Press."
_Leak an exclusive version to a selected reporter or
the weekly news magazines.
_Have national security adviser Condoleezza Rice or
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hold a news
_Persuade a third party or columnist to write an
opinion piece that would appear in newspapers on the
page opposite the editorials.
Not only did Tenet leave unanswered questions about
Cheney, his remarks came out late on a Friday, the
government's favorite moment to deliver bad news.
"Fewer people pay attention to it later on Friday,"
Martin testified. "And in our view, fewer people are
paying attention on Saturday, when it's reported."
As Martin rated their options, putting Cheney on "Meet
the Press," NBC's Sunday morning talk show, "is our
best format." Cheney was their best person for the
show and "we control the message a little bit more,"
according to Martin.
The downside was that Cheney could "get pulled into
the weeds and specifics. We like to keep him at a
pretty high level," she said. Also, it "looks
defensive to rush him out on 'Meet the Press.'"
Next they could give an exclusive or leak to one
reporter and she considered David Sanger of The New
York Times, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, or
Time or Newsweek.
Because reporters are competitive, "if you give it to
one reporter, they're more likely to write the story,"
Plus an official can demand anonymity in return for
the favor. "You can give it to them as a senior
administration official," she said. "You don't have to
say this is coming directly from the White House."
The news weeklies offered a focus on the big picture
and opinion-editorial writers and columnists could
Ultimately, Cheney crafted an on-the-record statement
to be attributed to Libby by name along with some
anonymous background information. Libby personally
called Matt Cooper of Time, who had e-mailed questions
to Martin earlier.
But when Libby suggested calling Newsweek in fairness,
Cheney's aides were at a loss.
"We were scrambling for a number for a reporter that
we know there named Evan Thomas," Martin testified.
"We were looking around for a number. I didn't have it
with me." Eventually, they found a number and left a
But Cooper did not use the full quote and Martin
called to complain. "I put Scooter on the phone with
him, which we didn't do very often on the record with
a quote," she testified, "and he took just a piece of
it." The result "wasn't helpful" and the story did not
So the following week, two senior Bush aides -
communications director Dan Bartlett and Rice's
deputy, Steve Hadley - briefed White House reporters.
Cheney invited a group of conservative columnists to
lunch at his residence.
On the Net:
Documents for the Libby trial may be found at: