It’s simple, said special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald during his opening argument at the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby: Vice President Dick Cheney’s onetime chief of staff lied to the FBI and a grand jury to cover up his and Cheney’s involvement in the leak that outed Valerie (Plame) Wilson as a CIA official.
This is a twisted, complicated and dark tale, said Ted Wells, a lead lawyer for Libby: one of conspiracies, bureaucratic infighting, turf wars, backroom deals, terrorist plots (involving nuclear weapons and anthrax) against the United States, and assorted memory lapses, convenient and accidental. Libby merely engaged in no-harm-intended forgetfulness, Wells insisted, and, moreover, he was “set up” by Karl Rove as a “sacrificial lamb” in a White House melodrama starring Cheney, who supposedly was defending Libby from a White House effort designed to protect Rove at all costs.
Both lawyers told the jury that the case–in which Libby faces five charges of obstructing justice, perjury and making false statements to government investigators–is not about the war in Iraq or the administration’s use of false information to sell the public on the war.
And as the two legal teams began their courtroom battle, new information was disclosed about the leak affair, including the revelation that Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary at the time of the leak, had identified Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer to NBC News reporter David Gregory a week before the leak appeared in Robert Novak’s July 14, 2003 column, and that Fleischer, during the subsequent criminal investigation, took the Fifth Amendment and demanded (and received) immunity before testifying to Fitzgerald’s’ grand jury. Fleischer told the grand jury that he had learned about Valerie Wilson’s CIA affiliation first from Libby and then from Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. (This directly implicated yet two more White House officials in the scandal.) Gregory, though, did not report the information, and he later declined to talk to Fitzgerald about his conversation with Fleischer. Fitzgerald never subpoenaed him. (In a response to an email from a colleague asking about today’s disclosure, Gregory emailed, “I can’t help you, sorry.”) The first day of the trial also brought the news that after the Justice Department opened an investigation of the CIA leak in fall 2003, Cheney pressured the White House press office to make a statement clearing Libby of any wrongdoing.
Libby, Fitzgerald argued, committed a straightforward crime: lying to the FBI and the grand jury, as each was investigating the leak. The case, Fitzgerald acknowledged, has been playing against a large backdrop: the war in Iraq and the controversy regarding the Bush administration’s selling of the war. He also conceded that it grew out of the leak scandal and the question of who in the Bush administration had outed Valerie Wilson to reporters after Joseph Wilson publicly accused the White House of having twisted and misrepresented the prewar intelligence. But Fitzgerald attempted to focus the jury on a limited matter: several statements Libby made to the FBI and the grand jury about his role in the leak affair.