If Dick Cheney Goes

WASHINGTON, D.C.—As the tenure runs out for the grand jury in the Valerie Plame leak case this week, the bottom line question is not so much whether Bush administration insiders I. Lewis Libby and/or Karl Rove will get indicted, but whether special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation will reach Vice President Dick Cheney himself. Rove and Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, have been notified that they are at serious legal risk in the inquiry.

Tuesday's New York Times reports that Libby learned about Plame, a covert CIA officer and wife of administration critic Joe Wilson, from talking with Cheney. According to the Times, this new revelation, drawn from "notes of the previously undisclosed conversation" between the two, contradicts Libby's testimony to the grand jury.

"It would not be illegal for either Mr. Cheney or Mr. Libby, both of whom are presumably cleared to know the government's deepest secrets, to discuss a C.I.A. officer or her link to a critic of the administration," the Times explains. "But any effort by Mr. Libby to steer investigators away from his conversation with Mr. Cheney could be considered . . . an illegal effort to impede the inquiry."

It remains unclear what role, if any, Cheney played in revealing Plame's identity to reporters.

Yet even before today's report, rumors had been flying not only that the vice president’s office is in the prosecutor’s crosshairs, but that if Cheney goes, Bush will name Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the job. Other names flying around include that of Rudy Giuliani.

In the unlikely event that Cheney gets forced from office, the president would name a new vice president to serve out Cheney’s term.

The last time that happened was during Watergate, in 1973, when Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, had to go.

At the time, Agnew was trying to get around a grand jury inquiry into kick-backs, bribery, and tax evasion by insisting only the Congress could remove him. It was Robert Bork, then the Solicitor General, who settled the matter, concluding that while the president was immune to indictment or criminal prosecution, the vice president was not. His conviction, said Bork, woujd not disrupt the workings of the executive branch.

Agnew ultimately resigned as part of a plea bargain. Gerald Ford was named to replace him, and after Nixon resigned, Ford became president and picked Nelson Rockefeller as his second. This was the first use of the 25th Amendment.

John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel during the Watergate, thinks it unlikely that Fitzgerald would indict Cheney in part because, after all, the prosecutor was appointed by the Bush administration. Dean argues the matter will come down to why the identity of CIA agent Plame was leaked to the press. Did whoever leaked it act out of concern for national security? Dean says the investigation could well close as scheduled on October 28 and amount to practically nil.

“In short, I cannot imagine any of them being indicted, unless they were acting for reasons other than national security,” Dean writes. “Because national security is such a gray area of the law, come next week, I can see this entire investigation coming to a remarkable anti-climax, as Fitzgerald closes down his Washington Office and returns to Chicago.”

Additional reporting: Ali Syed

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