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.
Washington is like high school.
That seemed true at the Scooter Libby trial on Wednesday when the prosecution and the defense argued whether notes written by Libby on July 10, 2003, could be fully introduced as evidence. The notes covered a conversation between Libby, who was then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and Mary Matalin, a Republican strategist and Cheney adviser. Libby had called Matalin seeking advice on how to deal with the firestorm of the week: former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's charge that he had inside information proving the White House had twisted the prewar intelligence.
Wilson's criticism had come at a time when questions were being raised about the reference in George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech to the allegation that Iraq had been seeking uranium in Africa. According to the notes, Matalin told Libby that Wilson's charge was fitting into the "Democratic story on the Hill" and that the "story is not going away." The notes say, "We need to address the Wilson motivation." Matalin suggested that Libby call Meet the Press host Tim Russert. "He hates Chris," the notes say, in a reference to Hardball host Chris Matthews, who had been promoting Wilson's accusations on the air and slamming Libby by name. On the same page, Libby wrote, "Wilson is a snake."
This is how the nation's capital works. A scandal erupts, and the spinners go into damage control and try to manipulate the press however they can. In this instance, Matalin apparently believed Cheney's office could play Russert against Matthews.
It was unclear how much of this note federal district court Judge Reggie Walton will allow into evidence. The snake comment, he said, was prejudicial. But the line about Wilson's motivation could be relevant to assessing Libby's state of mind during that wild week. It could be interpreted to mean: let's undermine Wilson not on the merits of his argument but on what might have led to his trip--including his wife's employment at the CIA.
The fight over this document was a small part of the day. The major drama came when Matt Cooper, formerly of Time magazine, was called as a witness. He and Libby spoke on July 12, 2003--six days after Wilson had published an op-ed blasting the White House and two days before Wilson's wife was outed as a CIA officer in a Robert Novak column. During the subsequent CIA leak investigation, Libby told the FBI and a grand jury that he had said to Cooper that various journalists were telling the administration that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA but that he (Libby) didn't know if this was true. Libby testified to the grand jury that he told Cooper that all he knew about Valerie Wilson "was what reporters are telling us" and that "among other things, I didn't know [Wilson] had a wife."
Cooper gave the grand jury a very different account. He said that at the end of their conversation, he asked if Libby had heard anything about Wilson's wife being involved in sending her husband on his now infamous trip to Niger to check out the uranium allegation. As Cooper has put it, "Libby responded with words to the effect of, 'Yeah, I've heard that too.'" A day earlier, Cooper had been told by Karl Rove, a top White House aide, that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and was involved in the Wilson mission. With Libby's remark, Cooper believed he had confirmation of this hot piece of news. But Cooper's editors at Time kept the Wilson wife angle out of the cover story that was going to press the day of his conversation with Libby. Days later, Cooper co-wrote a piece for the magazine's website reporting that "some government officials have noted to TIME in interviews, (as well as to syndicated columnist Robert Novak) that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
In Libby's telling, he had merely picked up some gossip from reporters and passed it to Cooper with the caveat that he didn't know if any of it was true. Cooper's account--which Fitzgerald received only after threatening to jail Cooper, who initially refused to cooperate with the investigation--is a direct challenge to the veracity of the statements Libby provided the FBI and the grand jury. And Libby is on trial for allegedly lying to the FBI and the grand jury in part about his chat with Cooper.
On the stand, Cooper described the July 12 phone call. There were no surprises. He stuck to his story. Did Libby, Fitzgerald asked, say to you that he had learned about Wilson's wife from other reporters? No, Cooper said.
It was straightforward--or seemed so. Until Bill Jeffress, a Libby attorney, cross-examined Cooper. He asked a series of questions insinuating that Cooper had learned about Wilson's wife not just from official sources but from John Dickerson, a colleague at Time. But Dickerson has said (more than once) that he was not leaked information about Wilson's wife. (See here.)
Jeffress was suggesting that the Libby confirmation was not important for Cooper--and perhaps even nonexistent. He introduced a "file" Cooper sent to his editors at Time shortly after his discussion with Libby. The memo reported what Libby had told Cooper about the Wilson controversy but did not mention anything about Wilson's wife. "Why did you not put that in your memo?" the attorney asked. "I can't explain that," Cooper replied. (One reason might be that his editors had already signaled to Cooper they were not interested in the Wilson's wife story, and the magazine was just about to close that week's issue.)
Jeffress poked at the sausage-making of journalism. When a source tells you, "I've heard something," he asked Cooper, do you take that as a fact? Cooper replied that he viewed Libby's remark "as confirmation." Did you ask Libby where he had heard it? Jeffress countered. No, said Cooper. Ouch.
Jeffress also engaged in a rather creative maneuver. He puled out the notes Cooper had typed on his laptop while speaking to Libby and highlighted one section that read:
had something and about wilson thing and not sure if it's ever
What did this mean? Cooper didn't know. Is it possible that Cooper had typed "had" instead of "heard." It's possible, Cooper said. And did Cooper often insert extra "ands" into his notes? "I don't accept that characterization," Cooper said, not hiding his irritation. Jeffress referenced another part of these notes that arguably had an unnecessary "and" or two. And, Jeffress continued, do you ever type an "r" when you mean to type an "n"? The lawyer produced two Cooper notes that had nothing to do with the Libby conversation in which Cooper had typed "erroneous" as "erroreous" and "energy" as "eregy." What about the "wilson thing" phrase? Jeffress asked. Could it be a reference to Wilson's wife?
Cooper could see where Jeffress was heading, and he sharply replied, that's not "how I remember it." Then Jeffress unveiled his masterpiece. Change the "had" to "heard," delete the "and," and change the "ever" to "even," and look what you get:
heard something about wilson thing and not sure if it's even.
Jeffress added the last word: true. Presto, Cooper's notes--with these tweaks--chronicle what Libby claims he said to Cooper. "That's not my recollection," Cooper said.
When Fitzgerald had another shot at Cooper, he asked the journalist if he would have considered Libby's remark to be "confirmation" of the information Rove had leaked to Cooper if Libby had said he didn't know the information was true and didn't know Wilson had a wife. "No," Cooper said. Did you ask Libby any follow-up questions about Wilson's wife? the prosecutor asked. "I should have," Cooper responded, evincing regret. Why didn't you? the prosecutor inquired. Libby was reluctant to stay on the phone, Cooper said. And when did the two discuss Wilson's wife? At the end of the conversation, Cooper answered. The words in Cooper's notes that Jeffress had worked his magic upon appear not at the end but about two-thirds into document.
Jeffress had thrown a handful of dirt into Fitzgerald's gears. He had raised questions about Cooper's journalistic practices. He had drawn Dickerson further into the story--perhaps to bolster the defense's less-than-solid contention that Tim Russert may have heard about Valerie Wilson from NBC News reporter David Gregory. This could be important later in the trial, when Russert takes the stand and challenges Libby's claim that he (Libby) heard about Wilson's wife from Russert. (Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified on Monday that he leaked information about Valerie Wilson to Dickerson and Gregory. Dickerson says Fleischer merely urged him to look into who had sent Wilson on his trip to Niger. An email from the time supports Dickerson.)
Whether or not Jeffress put much of a dent into Cooper--who was an unflappable and savvy witness--he still has a problem. Libby's own story is that he told Cooper he didn't know that Wilson had a wife. So far, seven witnesses have testified that they spoke to Libby about Wilson's wife prior to this conversation. And according to evidence introduced by the defense, Cheney told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA. Cooper's testimony is hardly the only evidence contradicting what Libby told the grand jury about his conversation with Cooper.
Earlier in the day, Jeffress continued his assault on former New York Times reporter Judy Miller, questioning her ability to recall key information. (See here for an account of his initial attack on Miller.) He asked about conversations she had with sources other than Libby regarding Wilson and his wife. "I remember having other conversations," she said, adding, "I can't remember with whom I had those conversations." Wilson's phone number was in her notebook, Jeffress pointed out: who gave it to you? She couldn't recall.
Could she be sure, the lawyer asked, that no one had told her about Wilson's wife before Libby did so at a June 23, 2003 meeting (as she had testified)? Miller replied she had "no recollection of knowing" anything about Wilson's wife before that conversation with Libby. "You might have," Jeffress countered. "You can't be certain." Miller held fast: "I'm confident I didn't know before that." Then Jeffress quoted a Miller remark from her second grand jury appearance: "I don't remember if [the June 23 meeting with Libby] was absolutely the first time, but it was among the first time I had ever heard that. I don't--I can't recall for sure."
Jeffress asked her about her claim that Libby at that June 23 meeting had told her that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. In her notebook, she had written that Wilson's wife was employed at a "bureau." Miller testified on Tuesday this was a reference to a nonproliferation bureau at the CIA. But she also acknowledged that it had taken her "a while" to figure that out. But isn't the FBI sometimes referred to as the Bureau? Jeffress asked. Aren't there "bureaus" in the State Department? Isn't it true there are no parts of the CIA called a bureau? Didn't you tell the grand jury, he asked Miller, that you were "confused" by Libby's use of the word "bureau" and that your memory is bad on this? He displayed a grand jury transcript backing up his questions. He also noted that Miller's notebook had several references to Valerie Wilson prior to the leak. His suggestion: Miller had been talking to sources other than Libby about Joe Wilson and his wife and, due to her faulty memory, couldn't say for sure who had told her what.
Miller did her best to fend off his punches and defended her testimony. And Jeffress questioned her credibility with less visible enjoyment than the day before. He had already made his point about her memory, and not all jurors fancy overkill. Fitzgerald, during additional questioning, rehabbed Miller on a few matters. Responding to his queries, Miller said that there were no mentions of Wilson's wife in her notebooks prior to the notes related to her June 23 meeting with Libby. Fitzgerald also cited an exchange that occurred during Miller's first grand jury testimony. During that session, she did not recall her June 23 conversation with Libby--a point Jeffress has highlighted. But, as Fitzgerald noted, she also said that she did have a "vague memory" of talking with someone about Valerie Wilson's CIA connection prior to a meeting she had with Libby on July 8, 2003. In other words, she almost remembered her first conversation with Libby about Wilson's wife.
Miller's stint as a witness was ugly. But Fitzgerald managed to steer his case through these shoals. And her account was one more contradicting the statements Libby made to the FBI and a grand jury. Thanks to the cross examinations, jurors might have questions about each prosecution witness. Fitzgerald will win or lose depending on whether the jury looks past all the cuts and nicks. He has only a few more witnesses to call, including Russert, and he said he expects his case to be completed by early next week. Then it will be the Libby team's turn to send witnesses into the crossfire.
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.