Friday, October 2, 2009

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the release of documents that could shed light on former Vice President Dick Cheney’s role in the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.

But U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan also ruled that portions of the documents, notes from a 2004 FBI interview with Mr. Cheney, must remain secret.

The 67 pages of notes relate to the leak of Mrs. Plame’s identity, an event leading to a protracted investigation that resulted in the conviction of Mr. Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., on charges of lying to a grand jury.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sought the notes through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that had been opposed by the Justice Department during both the Bush and Obama administrations. The case put the Obama administration in the paradoxical situation of defending Mr. Cheney, who is one of its most persistent critics.

The Justice Department said Thursday it is reviewing Judge Sullivan’s decision.

While it remains unknown whether the Justice Department will appeal, it must decide soon. Judge Sullivan ordered that the notes be released by Oct. 9.

In ordering their release, Judge Sullivan rejected the Justice Department’s arguments that the notes should be kept secret because revealing them may discourage top White House officials from cooperating with future criminal investigations.

Judge Sullivan has said that adopting the Justice Department’s argument would, in effect, require him to create a new law, a job that he said can only be left to Congress.

“This court, however, is bound by the law in its current state, which does not sanction such an expansive reading of the statute,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

But Judge Sullivan did rule that portions of the notes must remain secret because of privacy, national security and executive privilege exemptions to FOIA laws. Among the exemptions are portions of the notes that relate to internal deliberations among senior White House officials.

The judge did not specify exactly how much would be withheld, though he did say that only two sentences related to “confidential communications” between Mr. Cheney and former President George W. Bush would not be released.

CREW praised Judge Sullivan for rejecting some of the Justice Department’s arguments, but expressed disappointment that portions of the notes will remain secret.

“High-level government officials should not be permitted to hide their misconduct from public view,” said Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director. She called on the Justice Department to make good on President Obama’s pledge of greater transparency by voluntarily releasing the portions of the notes that Judge Sullivan said can remain secret.

The notes are part of an investigation that became known as “Plamegate.”

Mr. Libby was the only person to face charges as result of the imbroglio, though he was not charged with the actual leak. Mr. Bush commuted Mr. Libby’s 2 1/2-year prison sentence before he spent a day in jail.

The scandal had its roots in the 2003 State of the Union address, in which Mr. Bush said then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Africa. Mrs. Plame’s husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, disputed that claim, which the couple says led the Bush administration to leak Mrs. Plame’s identity to the columnist Robert Novak as an act of revenge. He died in August.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage was later revealed to have leaked the information.

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