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Libby Trial Continues With Memory Attacks | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Libby Trial Continues With Memory Attacks

For an account of the opening arguments of the Libby trial, click here.

On the second day of the Scooter Libby trial, Ted Wells, the defendant's attorney, continued with his double strategy of challenging the memories of the prosecution's witnesses and of creating a series of narratives that could end up confusing jurors.

The first witness called to stand by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was Marc Grossman, who was the No. 3 at the State Department in the summer of 2003. His testimony was clear-cut. On May 29, 2003, he was contacted by Libby, who was seeking information on former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger. Three weeks earlier, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had written a piece--without mentioning Wilson by name--citing Wilson's mission as evidence that the Bush administration had hyped the prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Few in the media had paid any attention to Kristof's column, but Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus was looking into Vice President Dick Cheney's connection to the Wilson affair. (Wilson had been sent by the CIA on this trip in 2002 after Cheney had asked an intelligence briefer for more information on the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger.)

It was while Pincus was sniffing around that Libby, according to Grossman, called him and asked for information on Wilson's mission. Grossman testified that he had known nothing about the trip, then learned the basic details from others at the State Department, and shared this information with Libby. He also testified that he had asked the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research to prepare a memo on the trip. The memo noted that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA division that had dispatched Wilson. Grossman testified that he shared this fact with Libby during a face-to-face meeting on June 11 or June 12, 2003.

This is important because after the CIA leak criminal investigation was launched, Libby told the FBI and a grand jury that when he heard from Meet the Press host Tim Russert on July 10 or 11 that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA, he believed he was learning this fact anew. (Russert denies saying anything to Libby about Valerie Wilson.) Fitzgerald's plan is to demonstrate that Libby aggressively gathered information on Joseph and Valerie Wilson before the leak to prove that his story to the grand jury and the FBI--that he had forgotten he knew anything about Valerie Wilson and had merely passed along to reporters rumors about her he had heard from other reporters--was an intentional lie.

If Libby was pressing Grossman for official information on Wilson and receiving information on Wilson and his wife (which was classified), it means he possessed far more than scuttlebutt. And Grossman was only the first of several witnesses Fitzgerald expected to call to make this point.

What could Wells do? Go after Grossman's memory. He noted that the written report of his first interview with the FBI--which occurred on October 17, 2003-says that Grossman told the bureau that he conveyed information on the Wilson trip to Libby during two or three telephone calls. Yet now, Wells said, Grossman was testifying that there had been a face-to-face conversation. "I don't know how to explain this," Grossman said. Wells continued: An FBI memo regarding Grossman's second interview with the bureau also said that Grossman had told the FBI he had informed Libby about Wilson's wife in a phone call. "Again," Grossman said, "I recall that as a face-to-face meeting." Wells cited another discrepancy between the FBI reports of Grossman's interviews and his jury testimony.

It was not devastating. But it was a shot across the bow of Fitzgerald's case. Part of Libby's defense is that he did not lie, he merely falsely remembered matters that were not so relevant at the time. If Wells can show the main witnesses against Libby have memory problems of their own, he will be quite pleased.

With Grossman on the stand, Wells also took a stab at bolstering one of the narratives he intends to throw at the jury: that Libby did not engage in any illegitimate effort to harm Joseph Wilson. Wells has signaled he will present the jury a complicated story--part of which will claim that Libby had been tasked by Bush and Cheney to address Wilson's accusations on the merits. Referring to the memo and attachments pulled together for Grossman (in response to Libby's request), Wells asked Grossman if one of the attachments showed that Iraq had indeed tried to purchase yellowcake uranium--which can be enriched for a nuclear bomb--from Niger. That's not what the document said. It noted merely that a former Nigerien prime minister had told Wilson that in June 1999 a businessman had asked that he meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss "expanding commercial relations" and that he (the former prime minister) had interpreted this request to mean the Iraqis were interested in uranium purchases. But the former prime minister said he let the matter drop because he was not interested in dealing with Iraq (which was subject to United Nations sanctions) and angering the United States.

Wells was clearly looking for material to support the argument that Wilson was wrong in assessing the Niger charge as improbable and that Libby and the White House were right (perhaps even obligated) to challenge his accusation. But Wells did not go too far down this road. "Now, are we arguing this again?" exclaimed a reporter in the press room.

With his second witness--Robert Grenier, a former Iraq mission manager at the CIA--Fitzgerald developed his narrow narrative. Grenier testified that on June 11, 2003, he received a phone message from Libby at 1:15 in the afternoon. Previously, he had been in interagency meetings with Libby, but this was the first time the vice president's chief of staff had ever called him. Grenier immediately phoned him back. Libby, according to Grenier, told Grenier that a former ambassador named Joseph Wilson was "going around town" claiming he had been sent to Niger by the CIA to determine if there was any truth to the Niger charge and that this trip had occurred because the office of the vice president had expressed an interest in the allegation. Was this true? Libby asked. He sounded, Grenier said, "a little bit aggrieved," and Grenier worried that Cheney's office suspected the CIA of leaking information harmful for Cheney and the White House.

Grenier testified that he had heard nothing about Wilson's trip prior to this conversation. He called a unit within the CIA's Counterproliferation Division and obtained information about the Wilson matter--and he learned that Wilson's wife worked at that particular unit. (He was not told her name or position.) But before he could call Libby back, Libby phoned again, and Grenier was pulled out of a meeting with CIA Director George Tenet. He conveyed to Libby what he had learned from CPD, including the information about Wilson's wife. A few days later, when Grenier saw Libby, Grenier testified, Libby thanked him for the information and said that it was useful.

By Fitzgerald's count, there were now two former government officials who maintained they had told Libby about Wilson's wife in response to questions from Libby. Then Bill Jeffers got hold of Grenier. On the cross-examination, he dug into a problem with Grenier's testimony. Grenier had conceded that when he first talked to FBI agents investigating the leak and when he first appeared before the grand jury he had said that he did not recall having told Libby about Wilson's wife. He explained that he had recalled that he had done so only after thinking about the matter in response to stories in the media about the leak case. "I was going over it again and again in mind," he testified. Then in the spring of 2005--more than a year after his initial grand jury appearance--he spoke to CIA lawyers and arranged to reappear before the grand jury to say he now realized he had spoken to Libby about Wilson's wife.

Jeffers poked at Grenier's claim that his recollection of his discussion with Libby had grown. He asked why he could not recall this phone call during his FBI interview and first grand jury appearance. And Grenier conceded that his recollection of his conversation with Libby "has a fair amount of vagueness attached to it." Jeffers also pointed out that during Grenier's first grand jury appearance Grenier had said that he did not even recall that a Counterproliferation Division staffer had told him about Wilson's wife. But, Jeffers added, Grenier only had a clear recollection of this at his second grand jury appearance. Grenier could not explain the disparity. And he asked Grenier a series of questions that raised the notion that the CIA and the White House at the time of the leak were feuding over responsibility for the faulty prewar intelligence, perhaps in preparation for suggesting to the jury that Grenier and/or other CIA officers might have an interest going after Libby and Cheney.

Next up was Craig Schmall, who in 2003 was a CIA briefer for both Libby and Cheney. He testified that during his June 14, 2003 morning briefing of Libby, the vice president's chief of staff had raised a few matters that were not part of the official briefing. One was a visit Libby had just had with actors Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz. "He was a little excited about it," Schmall said, explaining that Cruise had come to talk to Libby about Germany's treatment of Scientologists. (Cruise had met with Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state on June 13.) Another issue was the Wilson mission and Valerie Wilson. Schmall's handwritten notes on the table of contents of Libby's briefing that day indicated that Libby had mentioned both Wilsons to him. Here was more evidence suggesting that Libby was on top of the Wilson business (before it became public) and knew about Valerie Wilson.

Schmall also testified that after the leak had occurred, while he was briefing both Cheney and Libby, they asked him what he thought about the leak scandal. Noting that some commentators had dismissed the leak as "no big deal," Schmall explained that he considered it a "grave danger." He explained to Libby and Cheney that foreign intelligence services could now investigate everyone who had come into contact with Valerie Wilson when she had served overseas. "Those people," he said, "innocent or otherwise, could be harassed...tortured or killed." With such testimony in hand, Fitzgerald will be able to argue that Libby had motive to lie about his connection to the leak: he would not want to be implicated in a chain of events that could lead to the torture and death of innocent people.

There was not much Libby attorney John Cline could do to challenge Schmall. The CIA briefer had admitted that he had a "poor memory" of the specific briefings. But his notes said what they said. So Cline mainly asked Schmall about the other subjects on Libby's plate during those briefings: bombings overseas, an arrest of a suspected terrorist, a proposed Middle East security plan, assorted possible terrorist attacks against the United States. This will be useful ammo if Libby's lawyers later claim he was too damn busy with protecting America to have recalled accurately what he knew about Valerie Wilson. Yet he wasn't too preoccupied to talk to Cruise about Scientology.

There were no bombshells today. It was hours of tough legal slogging. Fitzgerald is trying to create a chronology using witnesses who have--as most witnesses do--imperfect memories. Put enough of them together--and he's not done yet--and he could have a case. Libby's lawyers are doing what all defense attorneys do: raise doubts about the memories and motives of the prosecution witnesses. They landed a few blows. But Fitzgerald has more witnesses coming. After Schmall, the next scheduled witness is Cathie Martin, who was a spokesperson for Cheney. She was, in a way, a witness to the Grenier-Libby conversation and also spoke with Libby and Cheney several times about the Wilson affair. She was involved in the damage-control operation mounted in response to Joseph Wilson's revelations. Might she have a better memory than the initial witnesses?

*****

DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

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