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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: No Scooter, No Cheney

The news in the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby perjury trial on Tuesday came as court was shutting down because of a slight snowfall in Washington: neither the defendant nor his onetime boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, will testify in the case. Ted Wells, Libby's lead lawyer, told federal district court Judge Reggie Walton in the afternoon that Team Libby had released Cheney as a potential witness and that Wells had recommended to Libby that they rest their case after the defense calls three minor witnesses on Wednesday (if the judge rules they can appear) and perhaps brings back Meet the Press host Tim Russert. Judge Walton asked Libby if he had accepted his lawyer's advice and did waive his right to testify. Libby stood up in court and replied, "Yes, sir."

The trial will end with a whimper, not a bang. The jurors will not hear the defendant defend his statements to the FBI and the grand jury that investigated the leak that outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer. They will not hear him claim that he honestly misremembered facts or that his recollections (as opposed to those of all the prosecution witnesses) are accurate. They will not hear Libby maintain that he was the victim of a--take-your-pick--CIA plot, State Department plot, White House plot or NBC News plot (as Wells has variously suggested throughout the trial). They will not hear Cheney vouch for the integrity of the man whom he recently called "one of the most honest men I've ever met."

Libby's attorneys will argue Libby's innocence (or lack of guilt) by attacking the credibility of Fitzgerald's witnesses, by suggesting Libby was too busy to recall accurately such a minor matter as Valerie Wilson's CIA employment, by maintaining that Libby might have done no worse than confused a couple of phone calls, by contending that because Libby did not leak information on Valerie Wilson to some of the reporters he spoke with, he did not leak it to Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, and Matt Cooper, then of Time.

With the decision not to testify, Libby spares himself the obligation of explaining the convoluted explanation he provided the FBI and grand jury. He told the investigators that although Cheney in early June 2003 had told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA, he (Libby) totally forgot this and then on July 11 learned it "anew" when Russert said to him that "all the reporters" knew that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee. In Libby's telling, Russert conversation had not reminded him of what Cheney previously told him. Libby essentially claimed he had been struck by total amnesia on this one fact. This was an important point because Libby asserted that when he spoke to Miller and Cooper on July 12, 2003, and mentioned Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection, he was only passing along gossip he had received from Russert--not official (and classified) information he had obtained from Cheney.

Moreover, Libby told the grand jurors that he didn't even know at the time of the leak that Wilson had a wife. Yet Fitzgerald has presented several past and present government officials who testified that in the weeks before the leak they provided official information about Wilson's wife to Libby. And former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified that Libby had told him about Wilson's wife a week before the leak became public in Robert Novak's July 14, 2003 column.

How could Libby clarify his FBI and grand jury statements? How could he have testified that he hadn't even known Wilson had a wife? Well, now he won't have to explain. When his lawyers present their closing argument, they will attack the credibility and memory of each prosecution witness and toss out evidence-free speculation about what was really happening behind the scenes regarding the CIA leak--all to confuse, or raise a reasonable doubt. Wells also has suggested he might argue that Russert--contrary to Russert's testimony--did know about Wilson's wife and might have indeed shared this tidbit with Libby.

Cheney is off the hook, too. At the start of the trial, the defense raised the dramatic prospect of the vice president on the stand, but such a move always was problematic. Would Cheney have any credibility as a witness? ("You can trust me: Scooter was so busy helping me run the Iraq war that he failed to testify accurately.") And could Cheney withstand a cross-examination from Fitzgerald, who might have been able to ask Cheney about Cheney's own efforts to gather information on Joseph and Valerie Wilson and to question him about the curious conversations that occurred when Cheney (according to Libby) told Libby that Libby did not have to inform Cheney about Libby's full involvement in the leak episode.

The trial jurors spent three days listening to audio tapes of Libby's grand jury testimony and hearing (in Libby's own voice) what Fitzgerald has claimed to be lies. Many on the jury would probably prefer to hear directly from Libby. Yet his lawyers have concluded that the vice president's former chief of staff cannot be a strong witness in his own defense. It's his right not to testify. And defense attorneys routinely keep clients off the stand. Nevertheless, Libby's decision to remain mute and not submit himself to cross-examination is not without symbolic content.

Before Wells announced that Libby and Cheney would not testify, Libby's defense called to the stand John Hannah, who succeeded Libby as Cheney's national security adviser. And the following exchange--paraphrased because a transcript is not yet available--occurred:

Q: How would you evaluate Scooter Libby's memory?

A: On certain things, Scooter just had an awful memory. There were times too many to count when in the morning we would discuss policy issues, analyses and recommendations and then later in the day he would repeat back to me the same analyses and recommendations and have no idea I had mentioned them to him.

Libby's lawyers and his out-of-court defenders have long suggested that Libby's statements to the FBI and the grand jury were not deliberately deceptive (as Fitzgerald has charged) but merely the result of imperfect recollections held by a fellow consumed with pressing national security matters. Consequently, it was odd that when Libby's attorneys finally had the chance to present a witness who could back up this explanation, there was little punch to the memory defense. Hannah, who was one of Libby's deputies on national security issues at the time of the CIA leak, said little to support his assertion that Libby's memory was occasionally "awful" other than to depict an apparently routine scenario that made it seem like his boss was stealing his ideas.

Hannah was more persuasive on the other front: that Libby was a damn busy man. Under the careful prompting of John Cline, a Libby lawyer, Hannah described Libby's usual day when he was Cheney's Cheney. Libby had to manage a "very heavy" information flow, with memos and material coming to him from ten to twelve special advisers on national security in the vice president's office. He had several person-sized safes filled top to bottom with classified material. He had to prepare for meetings with other government officials and foreign officials; he had to prepare Cheney for meetings with other government officials and foreign officials. His work days began with an early morning intelligence briefing with Cheney and typically did not conclude until 8:00 or 9:00 at night. The job was challenging, Hannah said.

And there were so many weighty affairs of state for Libby to process. Cline walked Hannah through a list of topics previously cleared for public discussion by Judge Walton and government agencies, and he asked Hannah if each subject had been a matter of concern for Libby during the period of May 2003 to March 2004 (from when the Wilson affair started until Libby testified to the grand jury). Was Libby fretting about the proper role and size of Iraqi security forces in post-invasion Iraq and the composition of the government there? Yes, Hannah said: "It was a very important issue for us." Was he worried that the plans of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad for the buildup of the Iraqi police and security forces were insufficient? "Sounds right," Hannah replied. He noted that Libby was a "leader" in the effort to create more robust security plans for Iraq.

Libby was occupied with far more than Iraq, Hannah noted in response to Cline's questions. In June and July 2003, he was monitoring student protests in Iran and Iran's detention and possible harboring of al Qaeda suspects. Not to mention Tehran's nuclear ambitions. He was tracking developments in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Most important, he was doing what he could to defend the United States against al Qaeda and terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. Hannah said that senior administration officials, including Libby, were "concerned" that al Qaeda was developing biological weapons and pursuing nuclear weapons. Libby believed, Hannah said, that the US government's contingency plans to defend against WMD attacks were inadequate, and Libby pressed for more action. Libby, according to Hannah, was also deeply immersed in crafting the administration's responses to two foreign policy crises: the arrest of Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq and the rise of unrest in Liberia.

Libby, Hannah testified, managed all these knotty national security matters while serving as Cheney's chief of staff and handling domestic policy issues as well. After Hannah left the stand, Cline told the judge, "We want to paint a picture of a person who was overloaded, who was overwhelmed, who had a full plate."

Fitzgerald's questioning of Hannah was brief. If Cheney's integrity regarding the rationale for the Iraq war was publicly challenged, the prosecutor asked, would it have been important for Libby to respond? "It would be important to push back on those kinds" of attacks," Hannah answered. And, Fitzgerald asked, during the second week in July 2003, when Libby was burdened with the Turkey and Liberia crises and all else that Hannah had mentioned, would it have been easy for Hannah to have had a morning coffee with Libby for an hour to discuss these issues? "It would be harder," Hannah responded. It was obvious what Fitzgerald had in mind: on July 8, 2003, Libby held a morning meeting lasting over an hour with Judith Miller, during which he shared with her White House arguments to back up the administration's case for war and (according to Miller) told her that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. In other words, Libby was not too busy protecting America from terrorists that morning to chat confidentially with a reporter who could help him and Cheney conduct damage control.

The too-swamped-with-saving-the-world argument has other problems. In his grand jury testimony, Libby described how he spent considerable time dealing with the Wilson imbroglio and the controversy concerning the administration's prewar use of the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger. And a CIA briefer testified earlier in the trial that Libby had met with actor Tom Cruise in June 2003 to discuss Germany's treatment of Scientologists. So Fitzgerald can argue that no matter how overwhelmed Libby was by the big stuff he still found time to fight back on the Wilson matter and talk about Scientology with a Hollywood star.

Closing arguments are now scheduled for Tuesday. Fitzgerald will sum up his narrow case: Libby told investigators he knew nothing certain or official about Wilson's wife at the time of the leak and only shared scuttlebutt with reporters, but the testimony of three journalists and five past and present government officials disputes that. Wells will do all he can to slice and dice the witnesses. He will likely suggest--but not prove--alternative narratives that cast Libby as a victim or bystander. He will not rely on what Libby or Cheney could have told the jury. The two apparently have not much to say that can help Libby.

******

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.

Libby Trial: What Scooter Didn't Do

Scooter Libby didn't tell Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Libby didn't tell Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that she was employed at the CIA. Libby didn't tell New York Times reporter David Sanger the envoy's wife was CIA. Libby didn't tell Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post anything about her. And he said nothing to rightwing columnist Robert Novak about the woman.

That's how the defense in the perjury trial of I. Lewis" Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, began its case on Monday. The aim was to show that Libby was not willy-nilly spreading information to reporters about Valerie Wilson and her CIA employment in the weeks before she was outed as a CIA officer by Novak's July 14, 2003 column. Libby stands accused of having lied to a grand jury and the FBI when he told both that he had not passed official information regarding Valerie Wilson to reporter Judith Miller, then of The New York Times (during conversations on June 23, July 8 and July 12, 2003) and correspondent Matt Cooper, then of Time (during a phone call on July 12, 2003). With the testimony of the journalists who appeared on Monday, Libby's lawyers will be able to argue to the jurors that if Libby was purposefully leaking information on Valerie Wilson, he sure let plenty of opportunities pass him by.

The defense also elicited testimony from two reporters who each said he had been told about Wilson's wife (before the Novak leak) by an administration official other than Libby. Pincus testified that on July 12 Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, said to him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had sent her husband on a boondoggle. (Pincus had previously disclosed that an administration source made such a remark to him without identifying the source.) And Woodward testified that on June 13 he met with then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had been involved with the trip Joseph Wilson had taken to Niger for the CIA to check out the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium there. (The day before Woodward saw Armitage, Pincus had reported on the trip in the Post without naming Wilson).

Libby's lawyers merged these two key points--Libby had not leaked to these reporters while other officials had leaked--and composed a timeline in front of the jury that listed Libby's conversations with Pincus, Woodward, Sanger, Kessler, and Novak and Armitage's conversations with Woodward and Novak and Fleischer's with Pincus. The Libby conversations were noted in black ink. (Black meant no mention of WIlson's wife). The other three were in red. (Red meant Wilson's wife was mentioned.) Voila! The only conversations on the chart involving Valerie Wilson were those between reporters and Bush administration officials besides Libby.

Libby is in legal trouble because in 2003 and 2004 he told the FBI and the grand jury investigating the CIA leak that when he discussed Wilson's wife with Cooper and Miller, he was merely passing along gossip he had picked up from Meet the Press host Tim Russert--not official information gathered from government sources. Fitzgerald has presented witnesses who have testified that Libby did seek and obtain classified information on Valerie Wilson's CIA employment from Cheney and CIA and State Department officials and then leaked it to Miller and Cooper.

During the prosecution's case, Libby's attorneys attempted to impeach the credibility of these witnesses--and suggested several conspiracy theories that they have yet to support with evidence. Now that it's their turn, Libby's lawyers began with a contextual argument: look at all the times he didn't leak. But in Washington not every leak is an equal opportunity leak handed out to all comers. A leak often can be selective. During his grand jury testimony--which was played for the trial jurors--Libby explained how he had been tasked by Cheney (with George W. Bush's approval) to leak selectively to Miller excerpts from the classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (which the White House believed supported its case for war). Libby also told the grand jurors how he worked with then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to leak portions of the NIE to The Wall Street Journal--not to every reporter with whom he would come into contact.

Libby's I-didn't-leak-to-these-other-reporters argument has additional problems. When he didn't leak to Pincus, Woodward, and Sanger, the Wilson matter was not yet a firestorm. And some of these conversations did not concern the Wilson affair. Sanger testified that he had contacted Libby regarding Libby's role in Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations, during which Powell laid out a case for war based on false information. Is it fair to say your discussion with Libby did not involve allegations about Joseph Wilson? Fitzgerald asked Sanger. "That's fair to say," the reporter replied. And during the entire Sanger-Libby interview, Fitzgerald noted, Cathie Martin, Cheyenne's top press aide, was in the room. The prosecutor was suggesting it would be unlikely for Libby to leak classified information about Valerie Wilson to a reporter chasing another story while a press aide was watching. And Glenn Kessler of the Post testified that his phone conversation with Libby came about because he was helping a colleague at the paper gather answers to questions related to postwar planning. Kessler's phone call with Libby did not cover the Wilson trip.

Some of the testimony from the reporters did not enhance Libby's credibility. According to Pincus, Libby told him that Wilson's trip to Niger had been sparked by a question about the Niger allegation raised by an aide to the vice president. But the CIA had dispatched Wilson to Africa after Cheney himself asked about the NIger allegation. In talking to Pincus, Libby was dissembling to keep the boss out of the picture.

When Novak testified, he noted that on July 8, 2003, shortly after Armitage told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA, he (Novak) called Libby--and Novak's phone records support this. Libby returned the call that day or the next, according to Novak, and the two discussed the ongoing controversy concerning Bush's use of the Niger allegation in his 2003 State of the Union trip. Novak told the court that he might have asked Libby about Wilson's wife during this conversation but had no recollection of doing so. Yet during his grand jury testimony, Libby denied talking to Novak in this period. Libby claimed he had not had any conversation with Novak at "any time near" Novak's July 14, 2003 leak column--noting he had spoken to Novak "maybe a year and a half" before that article and then a "week and a half or so" after the column came out. Why then does Novak clearly recall a conversation with Libby at that time? This conflict in recollection was not addressed by the prosecution and the defense.

Through the day, the testimony of the notable journalists yielded several news nuggets. Fleischer was revealed to be more of a leaker than previously disclosed. (When he testified as a prosecution witness, Fleischer admitted to leaking to NBC News reporter David Gregory and John Dickerson, then of Time--though Dickerson's emails from the time show Fleischer did not tell him about Wilson's wife.) And Novak confirmed that Karl Rove, the Bush administration's top strategist, was the second source for his column blowing Valerie Wilson's cover. On the stand, Novak noted that at the time of the leak Rove was a "good source" with whom he spoke to two or three times a week. He said that he and Rove had a "modus operandi" in which Rove would quickly confirm or deny information Novak possessed without Novak "getting into a long dissertation"--and that Rove confirmed the information leaked to Novak by Armitage. Anyone remember the White House vow made by then-press secretary Scott McClellan in fall 2003 that any White House official involved in the leak would be booted out of the Bush administration? Confirming a leak is certainly involvement. Rove, though, still works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Tony Snow, care to comment?)

On the stand, Novak also said that he shared a draft of his leak column three days before it was published with a good friend and Republican lobbyist named Richard Hohlt. (Hohlt has represented BMW, JP Morgan Chase, SBC Communications, the Nuclear Energy Institute, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Northwest Airlines, and other corporate clients.) Novak testified that he had a "vague recollection" that Hohlt that day told the White House that a "very interesting" piece would be coming out. This seemed curious: Novak slipping a column to a GOP lobbyist who then immediately provided a head's up to the White House. But nothing else about this episode was disclosed.

When Woodward was on the stand, the prosecution introduced as evidence an audio clip of two minutes from Woodward's taped June 13 interview with Armitage. This was the first time--as far as the public record goes--that a Bush administration official told a reporter that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA. (Woodward did not report the information.) Armitage, according to a transcript of this exchange, showed Woodward a classified memo noting that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA as a WMD analyst. (The memo had it wrong; Valerie Wilson was operations chief for the Joint Task Force on Iraq of the Counterproliferation Division in the agency's clandestine operations directorate.) "His wife is in the agency....," said Armitage, who is well-known for his use of salty language. "How about that [expletive deleted]." (The transcript introduced in court redacted Armitage's salt.)

With Monday's testimony, the defense took a stab at providing a behavioral alibi for Libby. He didn't leak here, so he didn't leak there. It's unclear what the rest of the defense is going to cover. Libby's lawyers have said they expect to call Jill Abramson of The New York Times (supposedly to impeach Judith Miller's earlier testimony) and NBC News' Andrea Mitchell (supposedly to impeach Russert's earlier testimony). Libby's attorney have also mentioned bringing to the stand former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow and John Hannah, Cheney's current national security adviser. Hannah would presumably testify as to how busy Libby was with national security leaks at the time of the Valerie Wilson leak. His lawyers could then argue that Libby cannot be expected to remember accurately such minor business as the leak.

The defense has not yet declared whether it will call Cheney or Libby as witnesses. And the defense and prosecution have been squabbling over what evidence could be introduced should Libby not testify. Libby's lawyers began their case with a side issue: what Libby didn't say to other reporters. They have yet to disclose all that will follow.

******

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.

Libby Trial: Prosecution Rests--Strongly

It was Hail Mary time for Ted Wells, an attorney for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, as the prosecution moved toward resting its case in the perjury trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. On Thursday, Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert was back on the stand to be cross-examined by Wells. The previous day, Russert had kicked Libby's cover story in the groin. He had disputed Libby's claim that in the days before the leak that outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer he (Libby) had learned about her CIA connection not from official sources but from Russert. No way, the newsman said. The Russert call is critical for Libby, who has maintained he never shared official (that is, classified) information about Valerie Wilson with other reporters and only passed along gossip he had picked up from Russert. But on the stand Russert stuck to his version: he didn't say anything to Libby about Wilson's wife during a phone call on July 10 or 11, 2003, because he knew nothing about Wilson's wife until the leak appeared in a July 14 Robert Novak column.

So what was Wells to do? He started off Wednesday by taking shots at Russert's memory. (See here.) He made little progress. On Thursday, he tried to undermine Russert's credibility on other fronts. Wells attempted to make an issue of the fact that until Russert appeared as a witness in this trial he had never divulged publicly that he had talked to the FBI about the CIA leak investigation in November 2003. Wasn't Russert's call with the FBI a "newsworthy event?" Wells inquired, hinting that Russert had for years hid part of his involvement in the CIA leak case. Russert explained that he had not reported the conversation because the FBI agent had asked him to keep it confidential.

Wells then tossed far-fetched theories at the jury. On the stand, Russert had said that none of his NBC colleagues had told him anything about Wilson's wife. What about David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell? Wells asked. None meant none, Russert noted. But Wells still was holding out the possibility that Gregory received leaked information on Wilson's wife from then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and then quickly relayed it to Russert, who shared it with Libby. It's a thin theory--especially because neither Russert nor Gregory reported any news about Wilson's wife at the time. And the timing of real-world events may undermine the theory. But Wells keeps hammering at this possibility.

To buttress this part of his case, Wells tried to play for the jurors a video clip of Andrea Mitchell saying on CNBC in early October 2003 that she had known about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment prior to the Novak leak. But Mitchell, in two later interviews on Don Imus's radio show (which also aired on MSNBC), said she had misspoken and she retracted the comment. Wells suggested that Russert and Mitchell had conspired to undo Mitchell's remark so Russert's statements related to the leak case would not be undermined. He asked permission to show all these tapes to the jury. "This is nitpicky at best," Judge Reggie Walton complained. He ruled the tapes could not be played.

Next Wells took another shot at Russert's credibility. He pointed out that during Russert's appearance the previous day he had testified that Libby used the words "hell" and "damn" when he had called Russert in July 2003 to complain about Hardball host Chris Matthews' on-air criticisms of Cheney and Libby. Yet, Wells said, when Russert gave a deposition to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in August 2004 about this conversation with Libby he had not referred to these curse words--as if Russert had somehow suspiciously changed his account. Russert explained that during his deposition he had said that Libby had been "venting" and that word covered the cursing.

Such small stuff did not seem to impress the jurors; many appeared to be unriveted by Wells' questioning of Russert. Finally, Wells played his last card. Was there, he dramatically asked the witness, "bad blood" between Russert (and all of NBC News) and Libby? "No, sir," Russert replied in the quiet tone he had used throughout his testimony. But Wells had evidence to suggest otherwise.

It was another Imus clip. On the morning of October 28, 2005, hours before Fitzgerald was to announce indictments in the CIA leak case, Russert was on the show (via telephone) telling Imus about the mood of anticipation within the Washington press corps and his own NBC News bureau: "It was like Christmas Eve last night. Santa Claus is coming tomorrow. Surprises. What's under the tree?" Citing this comment, Wells contended that Russert was "elated" that Libby was about to be indicted. No, Russert said, he was referring to the fact that a "big news day" was coming and that no one knew for sure what Fitzgerald would announce. Was Russert equating an indictment of Libby with Christmas "presents under the tree?" Wells asked. No, the television host said. "You looked very happy" in the Imus clip, Wells countered. That was a "still picture," Russert noted. The cross examination was over

One more swing and a miss for Wells. In the first three weeks of the case, Wells and co-counsel Bill Jeffrey have suggested there have been a Variety Pak of plots against their client: a CIA conspiracy against Libby, a State Department conspiracy against Libby, a White House conspiracy against Libby, and, now, an NBC News conspiracy against Libby. But they have introduced no evidence to back up any of this. Wells' attempt to transform Russert's Christmas comment into proof that Russert and NBC News were bent on ruining Libby was typical. It was silly. But Wells is merely acting as a defense attorney should. Pull on any thread you can. Raise any matter that might sow confusion or doubt among the jurors. Nevertheless, he failed to undercut Russert, Fitzgerald's final witness.

The prosecution ended strongly. Fitzgerald has presented a parade of witnesses who have contradicted Libby on the key points: what he had known about Valerie Wilson and what he had told journalists. The defense is expected to call its first witnesses on Monday. The lineup will probably include several reporters who spoke to Libby before the CIA leak happened and who will testify that he said nothing to them about Valerie Wilson's wife. But Wells might need more than that--and more than word games and hints of plots--to beat back Fitzgerald.

******

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.

Libby Trial: Russert Ruins the Cover Story

After jurors in the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby perjury trial on Wednesday heard the defendant--on tape--cite Meet the Press host Tim Russert as his alibi, the alibi, using crutches, hobbled into the Washington courtroom and shot a hole in Libby's cover story.

For three days, the jury had been listening to audio tapes of Libby's two appearances before a grand jury in March 2004, when Libby repeatedly claimed that in July 2003, before the leak appeared that outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer, he knew nothing about her until Russert told him that "all the reporters knew" she worked at the CIA. Libby acknowledged to the grand jurors that weeks earlier Vice President Dick Cheney had told him that Valerie Wilson was a CIA employee, but he said that he had completely forgotten this and had learned about her "anew" when Russert passed him this gossip during a phone call. It's an essential part of Libby's tale. When the FBI and a grand jury were looking for administration officials who had leaked information on Wilson to reporters--and Libby was a potential target--Libby told the Bureau and the grand jury that he had not disclosed any information gathered from official sources; he had only shared with a few reporters a rumor he had picked up from Russert. And you can't prosecute a guy for spreading gossip. Again and again, during his grand jury testimony, Libby pointed to Russert: he told me, and, boy, was I surprised.

But on the stand, Russert told the trial jurors the opposite. Questioned by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for less than fifteen minutes, Russert said he had uttered no such thing to Libby. Russert also noted that it would have been "impossible" for him to have done so because at the time of the call--July 10 or 11, 2003, and days before Valerie Wilson's cover was blown in a Robert Novak column--he knew nothing about her. Wilson's wife never came up in the conversation with Libby, Russert testified. Libby had called him to complain that Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball was being too hard on Cheney's office (and on Libby) as Hardball covered the controversy sparked by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's charge that the Bush administration had twisted the prewar intelligence.

Once Russert, with little elaboration, had punctured a main element of Libby's story, Fitzgerald was done with the witness. Then came Ted Wells, a Libby attorney. His mission was clear: destroy the credibility of the fellow whom earlier in the day Libby had described (on the grand jury tape) as "one of the best newsmen, one of the most substantive of the news people."

Wells took his shots. He grilled Russert about an episode in which the anchor in a 2004 interview had failed to recall a phone call he had made to a Buffalo News columnist who had criticized how Russert had moderated a debate during the New York Senate race in 2000. Wells noted that Russert has often described himself as driven to get the story first. If so, Wells wondered, how could Russert not have taken the opportunity to talk to Libby about the Wilson imbroglio (and possibly about Wilson's wife) when the vice president's chief of staff rang him up? Had he forgotten this part of the call? "Frankly, [Libby] wasn't in the mood to talk," Russert replied, noting that the Cheney aide was rather agitated about Matthews. Wells pointed out that Russert had no notes on the call and that he had told the FBI that while he believed there had been only one call perhaps there had been two. Wells was doing all he could to question Russert's powers of recall.

Wells tried a few other attacks as well. He cited an NBC News press release that was issued when Russert had challenged a subpoena from Fitzgerald. (Russert lost that fight.) The release noted that Russert had not said anything to Libby about Valerie Wilson's "role" at the CIA. Why the word "role"? Wells asked. Was it carefully chosen because Russert actually had told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA but had not said what position (or "role") she had at the agency? This word-game was a sign of desperation on Wells' part. "As I read [the press release]," Russert answered, "it includes the fact I did not know that she worked at the CIA."

Wells also suggested Russert had lied to a federal judge when Russert had filed a motion to quash Fitzgerald's subpoena of him. In a declaration to the court, Russert had said that it was crucial that he be able to maintain the confidentiality of his sources. Yet, Wells noted, Russert had already told the FBI about his conversation with Libby. In other words, so much for protecting sources. Russert explained that in his earlier conversation with an FBI agent he had responded to an allegation that Libby had made about him (when Libby had spoken to the FBI) and that he had resisted the subpoena because he did not want to be in the position of appearing before a grand jury and being asked a wide range of questions about various sources.

Russert was unflappable during Wells' cross-examination. His voice remained steady. He took his time answering the questions. He was hardly animated--not his usual Sunday morning self. (Remember, he used to be a lawyer.) He noted that after Novak disclosed Valerie Wilson's CIA identity, the NBC News Washington bureau--which he presides over--waited several days before reporting the story. "We worked diligently to vet it," he said, recalling "long and extended conversations" about the national security implications of the disclosure. That is, NBC News acted more responsibly than the Bush administration leakers.

As the court recessed for the day, Wells said he might have another two hours of questions for Russert. Does he have better stuff to throw at Russert? He had not made much of a dent. Nor had Wells done much to advance his contention (presented earlier in the trial) that Russert might have heard about Wilson's wife from an NBC News colleague--most notably, David Gregory, who may have received leaked information on her from then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. (See herefor details of that confusing subplot.)

Wells needs to score more points in his Meet the Libby Lawyer show. Libby had based so much of his grand jury testimony on his conversation with Russert. Yet Russert pulled the rug out. His testimony was a simple conclusion to the prosecution's simple case.

Before Russert came to court, the jury finished listening to the audio tape of Libby's March 24, 2004 testimony to the grand jury. And there were passages that might cause a listener to think of Tony Soprano.

During that session, Fitzgerald asked Libby about several interactions he had with Cheney in the fall of 2003, when the leak scandal was red-hot. The news had just broken that the Justice Department was investigating the White House to determine who in the administration had leaked to Novak and other journalists about Valerie Wilson. The Washington Post had reported--perhaps not accurately--that two senior White House officials had called six reporters to leak this information as part of an orchestrated campaign to discredit Joseph Wilson after he had published an op-ed claiming he had inside information proving the White House had manipulated the prewar intelligence. Senior White House aide Karl Rove was a suspect in the investigation. So was Libby.

With a full-force firestorm under way, Libby, according to his grand jury testimony, went to Cheney and "offered to tell him everything I knew." Libby had not been a source for the Novak column. But at the time of that leak, he had talked to reporters about Wilson's wife and her CIA connection. (What he said is at issue in the trial.) He told the grand jury that he thought he ought to let Cheney know what he had done in the days before the leak. Yet Cheney, Libby recalled, "didn't want to hear." When Libby offered to disclose all to the vice president, Cheney said, "You don't have to. I know you didn't do it."

Cheney's incuriosity went further. When Libby told the vice president that he had discovered a note in his files indicating that in early June 2003, Cheney had told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division (a unit in the agency's clandestine operations directorate), the vice president barely reacted. The note was a big deal. Libby was claiming he had known nothing about Wilson's wife until his conversation with Russert. But here was indisputable documentation that Cheney had informed Libby weeks before that--and proof that Cheney had been gathering his own information on the Wilsons and the trip Joseph Wilson took to Niger for the CIA to check out the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium there.

What did Cheney say when told about the existence of this note? Fitzgerald asked. "He didn't say much," Libby replied, adding that Cheney "titled his head...and that was that." Tilted his head? What did that mean? Libby had no more of an explanation. He also testified that in the days before the leak occurred he and Cheney had discussed many aspects of Wilson's trip to Niger but that the "only part" of the controversy they had not talked about was Wilson's wife and her CIA employment. (When journalists in the media room heard Libby make this claim, several laughed.)

Libby's grand jury testimony contained other intriguing nuggets. At one point, he noted that then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had leaked portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMDs to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. This happened after Cheney had asked Libby to get this information to the Journal. (The NIE selections may or may not have been classified at the time: it's complicated.) Libby, in turn, talked to Wolfowitz about doing so because he didn't "have as good a relationship with the Wall Street Journal as Secretary Wolfowitz did." (When the Journal ran an editorial quoting the NIE and insisting that Bush had been right to cite Iraq's alleged attempt to buy uranium in Africa, the paper's editorialists asserted "this information...does not come from the White House.")

And in his grand jury testimony, Libby noted that both he and Cheney believed that Joe Wilson had been "qualified" for his mission to Africa. White House allies have long derided Wilson as an absurd choice for the trip. Will they retract that criticism? Or do they believe Libby was not telling the truth before the grand jury?

There also was an interesting absence in Libby's grand jury testimony. At the start of the trial, Wells suggested that Libby had somehow been set up by a White House cabal that was attempting to protect Rove at Libby's expense. Wells has yet to explain how this conspiracy worked. But during both of his grand jury appearances, Libby said nothing that hinted at the existence of a plot against him.

Perhaps Wells will get to this when he starts calling defense witnesses on Thursday or Monday. With Fitzgerald wrapping up his case, it's time for Wells to put up or shut up. He's tossed a lot of theories and notions at the jury over the past three weeks. It's easy for a defense attorney to cook up alternative explanations and dangle them in front of jurors. But if Wells calls certain witnesses to the stand--say, Rove or Cheney--jurors may well expect him to make good on his previous claims that the White House, the CIA and the State Department were each out to get Libby.

Wells has signaled that he intends first to put on the stand reporters who will testify that Libby didn't say anything to them about Valerie Wilson during the period he discussed her with Matt Cooper, then of Time, and Judith Miller, then of The New York Times. That's a modest defense. Will Wells and his colleague Bill Jeffress venture further? Fitzgerald appears to have put Libby in a hole. The grand jury tapes were quite damning. One conservative columnist emailed me to say that he/she now believes Libby is probably guilty, and a conservative-leaning reporter told me that after hearing the tapes she/he had come to the conclusion that Libby was screwed. If folks sympathetic to Libby believe this, one has to wonder what the jurors think.

******

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.

Libby Trial: Scooter Speaks, Part II

As jurors in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby spent Tuesday listening to audiotapes of Libby's two appearances in 2004 before the grand jury investigating the CIA leak, a possible killer moment occurred. It came when Libby, describing a conversation he had with reporter Matt Cooper, then of Time, on July 12, 2003 (two days before Valerie Wilson was outed as a CIA officer in a Robert Novak column), told the grand jury:

And I said [to Cooper], reporters are telling us that [former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife works at the CIA], I don't know if it's true. I was careful about that because among other things, I wanted to be clear I didn't know Mr. Wilson. I don't know – I think I said, I don't know if he has a wife, but this is what we're hearing.

I don't know if he has a wife--that's what the man said under oath.

By the time the jurors heard this part of the tape, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had presented as witnesses five past or present Bush administration officials and one journalist who each testified that he or she discussed Wilson's wife with Libby prior to Libby's phone call with Cooper. An additional witness--Vice President Dick Cheney's current chief of staff, David Addington--testified that Libby had asked him about the paperwork the CIA would keep if an officer had sent a spouse on a trip. And a Libby note from early June 2003, introduced as evidence by both the prosecution and the defense, indicates that Cheney told Libby, his chief of staff at the time, that Wilson's wife was employed at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division, a unit in the agency's clandestine operations directorate.

Yet now jurors could hear Libby claiming to the grand jury that at the time of the Libby-Cooper phone call--six days after Joseph Wilson had published an op-ed saying he had inside information showing the White House and Cheney's office had twisted the prewar intelligence--he (Libby) had no idea that Wilson was married, let alone that he knew the missus was a CIA employee.

Could Libby really have been telling the truth?

By playing the audiotapes, Fitzgerald placed the jurors in the position he was in when he grilled Libby before the grand jury. At that point, he already had testimony from witnesses who maintained they had told Libby or heard from him about Wilson's wife prior to the leak. Yet when Libby appeared before the grand jury, he told a convoluted tale. In essence, he claimed that he had been struck by amnesia--a rather selective case of amnesia.

Before the grand jury, Libby conceded that sometime before June 12, 2003, Cheney told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. (This happened during a period when Libby and Cheney were concerned about a Washington Post reporter who was looking into a story about an unnamed former envoy who had gone to Niger for the CIA and returned with information that the ex-envoy believed disproved part of the administration's case for war.) But Libby claimed that he had totally--and he meant totally--forgotten all about the wife when on July 10 or 11, 2003, Meet the Press host Tim Russert told him that "all the reporters" knew that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Before the grand jury, Libby repeatedly said he was "surprised" by the information he received from Russert. He said he felt he was learning it "anew" and was "taken aback." He was not unsure on this point: "I have a specific recollection I was surprised."

Libby was saying not that the Russert conversation had reminded him of what he had known only weeks earlier, but that he had so entirely forgotten what his boss had told him about Valerie Wilson that this was a complete news flash to him. Libby then insisted that he only passed the gossip he had received from Russert to other reporters (such as Cooper), telling them that he (Libby) knew nothing certain about Wilson's wife. Not that Wilson even had a wife.

It was some tale. This is how Libby described his phone call with Russert to the grand jurors:

And then [Russert] said, you know, did you know that this--excuse me, did you know that Ambassador Wilson's wife works at the CIA? And I was a little taken aback by that. I remember being taken aback by it. And I said--he may have said a little more but that was--he said that. And I said, no, I don't know that. And I said, no, I don't know that intentionally because I didn't want him to take anything I was saying as in any way confirming what he said, because at that point in time I did not recall that I had ever known, and I thought this is something that he was telling me that I was first learning. And so I said, no, I don't know that because I want to be very careful not to confirm it for him, so that he didn't take my statement as confirmation for him.

Russert has denied telling Libby any such thing and has said that he knew nothing about Wilson's wife at the time of his conversation with Libby. And during Libby's grand jury appearances, Fitzgerald repeatedly asked Libby if Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, senior CIA official Robert Grenier, and Cheney aide Cathie Martin had told him, prior to this conversation with Russert, that Wilson's wife was employed at the CIA. Libby said he did not recall any of these discussions. Fitzgerald asked him if he had discussed Wilson's wife and her CIA tie with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer days before the Russert call. Again, Libby said he could not remember doing so. The trial jurors listened to all this, knowing that each of these people had testified at the trial that they did talk to Libby about Wilson's wife before he supposedly learned it "anew." (During his second grand jury appearance, Libby asked to clarify his previous testimony and said that he now recalled having spoken to Grossman about Wilson as "a joke" and that he had ribbed Grossman because an ex-ambassador was leaking information harmful to the administration. He still claimed he had no recollection of Grossman telling him anything about Wilson's wife. A cynical interpretation would be that Libby--or his lawyer--decided it was better to have a difference with Grossman about what was said than a contradiction over whether they had ever talked about the Wilson mission.)

In his grand jury testimony, there were other hard-to-swallow parts. Libby acknowledged that after Wilson's op-ed came out, he discussed the Wilson controversy with Cheney, who was "upset" by the article. But Libby claimed that he and Cheney (who had written a note about Wilson's wife on his copy of the op-ed) had not talked about Wilson's wife until weeks later. In other words, right after the op-ed was published, Cheney and Libby had talked about various aspects of the Wilson case except Wilson's wife.

Libby's grand jury testimony yielded some interesting tidbits. Fitzgerald asked him about phone records indicating that Novak had called him days before he published his column outing Valerie Wilson. Yet Libby said he had no memory of speaking to Novak at that time. What happened? The jury--and the public--may never find out. But the jury did learn who was one of Cheney's favorite reporters: Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times. Explaining why he chose to pass information from the top-secret National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD to Miller, Libby told the grand jury that he considered Miller (whose prewar reporting on Iraq WMDs was exaggerated) "a serious reporter who cares about the substance of the issues." And Libby testified that before he leaked the NIE excerpts to Miller on July 8, 2003, he told Cheney that he had picked Miller to be the recipient of this leak. Presumably, Cheney considered her a suitable conduit, for he did not stop his aide. (Cheney had arranged for President Bush to declassify parts of the NIE so Libby could selectively leak it to a reporter as part of the administration's effort to beat back the mounting criticism that the White House had hyped the prewar case for war.)

Before the tapes were played, there was a legal tussle in the court concerning the defense team's desire to call New York Times reporter David Sanger as a witness. Libby met with Sanger on July 2, 2003, and apparently Libby said nothing to Sanger about Wilson's wife. The defense wants to point to this conversation to show that Libby was not actively spreading information about Wilson's wife. A Times lawyer argued that if Sanger were forced to testify, his ability to deal with confidential sources would be hampered. Judge Reggie Walton shot down Sanger's argument and said the reporter would have to appear as a witness for the defense. (Will Sanger, like Miller did, defy a court order and face prison time?) As the defense and the Times tangled, Fitzgerald noted that during his July 2 conversation with Sanger, Libby shared information about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that was still classified. The implication: Libby was leaking before Cheney gave him permission to do so.

On Wednesday, the jury is scheduled to hear the final two and a half hours of Libby's grand jury testimony. So far the tapes are not favorable for Libby. His story before the grand jury was neither clean nor clear. And on the audiotape, when he made a remark that would later be contradicted by trial witnesses he often paused or dropped the volume of his voice. Are the jurors picking up on that? There's no telling. But his grand jury testimony--which got Libby into his current jam--is not a strong advertisement for the former vice presidential chief of staff. Libby's defense team has filed a motion suggesting Libby may not testify in his own defense. But after hearing Libby present confusing (if not untenable) explanations of his actions to the grand jury, the trial jurors may well want (and expect) to hear Libby clear things up on the witness stand. That is, if he can.

******

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.

Libby Trial: Scooter Speaks

After two weeks of listening to a series of prosecution witnesses in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the jurors finally got to hear the defendant. He didn't take the stand. That may happen later. On Monday, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald began playing eight hours of audio tapes of Libby's two appearances before the grand jury that investigated the CIA leak case.

The tapes did not contain much information not previously disclosed. Fitzgerald had picked Libby's grand jury testimony clean for his indictment and pretrial submissions. But the airing of the tapes was a visceral moment in a trial that has sometimes bogged down in legal minutia. Jurors could hear Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff utter the words that Fitzgerald has branded lies. They could listen to the pauses, to the moments when Libby's voice became quiet, to the hesitation that occurred during some of his answers--were any of these a tell?--and seek tangible and intangible indications of whether Libby indeed made false statements to prevent himself (and perhaps the vice president) from becoming entangled in a criminal prosecution.

In one of the first questions at the March 5, 2004 grand jury session, Fitzgerald asked Libby to explain how he had received his nickname "Scooter." Libby replied with a small joke: "Are we classified in here? It's--my family is from the South and it's less uncommon than it is up here." That was all he said--he didn't answer the question. Then Fitzgerald bore down on Libby, grilling him on what he had known about the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and when he had known it.

There were several key exchanges in the first 100 minutes played before the court recessed for the day. (The tapes and the transcripts will be released to the media and the public--over the objection of Libby's defense team--after all the tapes are played in court.) In front of the grand jury, Fitzgerald repeatedly asked Libby if in June 2003 he had discussed Wilson's wife and her CIA employment with either Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman or CIA senior official Robert Grenier. (At that point, Wilson's now infamous trip to Niger--during which he concluded the allegation that Iraq had been seeking uranium in Niger was bunk--had been cited in the media without Wilson being named.) Libby repeatedly told Fitzgerald that he had not spoken with either man about Wilson's wife. Yet both Grossman and Grenier have testified in this trial that Libby demanded information from them about the Wilson mission and that they informed him the ambassador's wife was a CIA employee.

Over and over, Libby told the grand jury he could not remember any such conversations with Grossman or Grenier. "Is that something you would remember?" Fitzgerald asked. "I just don't recall the conversation," Libby replied, in a voice that dropped in volume.

This has been a critical point for Libby. His story is that at the time of the leak that outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer on July 14, 2003, he possessed no official or classified information about her. He has claimed that he had forgotten--totally--the one conversation he had with Cheney about her in early June 2003, and he has said that in July 2003 he had heard from reporters--mainly Tim Russert of Meet the Press--that there were rumors that Wilson's wife was CIA. He has claimed it was as if he was learning about Valerie Wilson for the first time. Libby, according to his own account, then merely shared these rumors with other reporters.

Before the grand jury, Libby acknowledged that he had discussed Wilson's wife with his boss sometime before June 12, as Libby was preparing to speak with Walter Pincus, a Washington Post reporter looking to do a piece on the trip of a then-unnamed former ambassador (which had been reported in a column by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times a month earlier). The vice president told Libby that he had obtained information on this ex-diplomat and mentioned that the former ambassador's wife worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division, a unit within the agency's clandestine directorate. (Cheney and Libby were much concerned about the Wilson trip, for they believed the initial story about it suggested they had directly sent Wilson to Africa--which they had not--and that they had subsequently deliberately ignored information indicating that part of the administration's case for war was false.)

Questioning Libby about this conversation with Cheney, Fitzgerald asked if anything had been different in Cheney's tone of voice when he referred to the wife's CIA connection. The remark, Libby said, was a "little bit of a curiosity sort of thing." Was there any negative connotation? Fitzgerald inquired. "I wouldn't say negative," Libby replied. "It was a fact--not everybody's wife works there."

In Libby's telling, the vice president was briefing him about what the vice president had learned about Wilson's trip--a month before the Wilson imbroglio would become a public scandal--and the CIA link was no more than an oddity, even though everything else Cheney had learned about the trip was deemed important by him and Libby. "What did you think of that fact?" Fitzgerald asked, referring to the wife's CIA employment. Libby replied that he saw it as nothing but a "curiosity" that "might mean nothing, might mean something, I don't know."

That's Libby's story: the wife was a trivial matter; thus, he had no reason to lie about what he knew to the grand jury. Other elements of the Wilson trip--such as the fact that the vice president received no direct briefing on its results--were significant, but not this "curiosity." Libby has maintained that he discussed it with no one at State or the CIA. And then he forgot what Cheney had told him about the wife.

It's a hard story to believe--or follow--especially after several past and present Bush administration officials have testified at the trial that Libby was in the know about Valerie Wilson. On Tuesday, the jury will hear another six hours of Libby's grand jury testimony. It will be confusing and convoluted at times. And the jurors will be listening to what they can hear between the lines.

*****

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.

Libby Trial: Lawyers Clash Over Motive

Scooter Libby was thrown under the bus. No, Scooter Libby gave the bus driver false directions.

On Thursday, the prosecution and the defense in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby spent much of the day clashing over evidentiary matters, but, as they battled, each side laid out its core theory.

The initial dispute concerned special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's effort to enter into evidence video clips of White House press briefings held in October 2003 shortly after the news broke that the Justice Department, at the CIA's request, was launching a criminal investigation of the leak that outed Valerie Wilson, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, as a CIA officer.

Here's the background: in mid-September 2003, White House press secretary Scott McClellan responded to a remark made by Joe Wilson, in which the former diplomat said he looked forward to the day when Karl Rove would be "frog-marched" out of the White House for having been involved in the CIA leak. It was "totally ridiculous," McClellan said, to suggest that Rove was a party to this leak. (Reality break: as was revealed years later, Rove had slipped information on Valerie Wilson's CIA connection to rightwing columnist Robert Novak and Time's Matt Cooper.) After the criminal investigation became public in late September 2003, McClellan again told reporters Rove had nothing to do with the leak. But when he was asked about Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, McClellan declined to offer a similar denial.

Libby freaked out. According to Ted Wells, one of Libby's attorneys, Libby went to McClellan and White House chief of staff Andrew Card asking for the same treatment that Rove got. They "blew him off," Wells exclaimed in court. Then Libby went to his boss, with talking points he wanted McClellan to recite:

I've talked to Libby. I said it was ridiculous about Karl and it is ridiculous about Libby. Libby was not the source of the Novak story. And he did not leak classified information.

Cheney took the paper on which Libby had written these lines and added his own note:

Has to happen today. Call out to key press saying same thing about Scooter as Karl. Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy that we asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.

Lo and behold, during press briefings on October 7 and 10, McClellan declared that Libby, like Rove, was "not involved" in the CIA leak. A reporter asked if either had "told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA." McClellan replied, "they assured me that they were not involved in this." He also said that any White House official who had leaked classified information would be booted out of the administration.

Fitzgerald wanted to play the video clips of these and another White House press briefing for the jury. Libby's legal team objected--vociferously.

The McClellan statements, Fitzgerald argued, were important because they provided Libby a motive to lie. Libby, Fitzgerald contended, had "put down a marker." He went to Cheney and had the White House issue a statement that he had not leaked classified information. Days later, he was interviewed by the FBI. He couldn't contradict what he had just forced McClellan to say. So, Fitzgerald maintained, Libby lied. Libby told the agents that he had merely picked up scuttlebutt about Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection from Tim Russert of Meet the Press and had passed that gossip to other reporters. No big deal.

During the trial, though, Fitzgerald has presented testimony and evidence indicating that at least five government officials--including Cheney--had provided Libby with official information about Wilson's wife. Former press secretary Ari Fleischer, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Matt Cooper have testified that Libby shared this information with them. (And Fitzgerald pointed out in his indictment of Libby that Valerie Wilson's employment status at the CIA was "classified.") But, Fitzgerald said on Thursday, when questioned by the FBI, Libby had "to say that what he leaked to reporters was not [from] an official source....He [had] to tell a story that is consistent with what he just had the White House tell the world." Thus, he cooked up a false account: Russert had been his source and at the time of the leak he possessed no certain and official (a.k.a. classified) information about Wilson's wife. And because McClellan had said that anyone involved in the leak would be canned, Fitzgerald maintained, Libby had further cause to concoct a cover story.

There's a weird wrinkle. At his first FBI interview, which happened on October 14, 2003, Libby acknowledged that in early June 2003--before the Wilson affair erupted and the leak occurred--the vice president had told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division, which was part of the agency's clandestine operations directorate. There are notes of that call--and Libby shared them with the FBI. Yet Libby told the FBI that shortly after speaking to Cheney about Wilson's wife he completely forgot that conversation and that when weeks later he heard about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment from Russert, he believed he was learning about it for the first time. (Russert denies saying anything to Libby about Valerie Wilson). This is a hard-to-believe scenario. But it tracks with Fitzgerald's theory: Libby lied to hide the fact that he had possessed and spread official information about Wilson's wife.

The prosecutor wanted the McClellan statements entered into the record to demonstrate that Libby had reasons to mislead the investigators.

No, its just the opposite, declared Wells, who opposed showing the jurors these McClellan clips. Libby, he claimed, was not concerned about losing his job: "he was concerned they were scapegoating him." They? Wells meant the White House. Who in the White House? Wells hasn't said, but he's hinted that Rove was at the center of a get-Libby conspiracy that was trying to turn Libby into Washington-scandal roadkill. "The government," Wells argued, "says what motivated him to lie was that he thought he would be fired.....My response is that he didn't care [about losing his job]...He acted like an innocent person...Only an innocent person would go to the vice president and say what they're doing is unfair," regarding clearing Rove but not Libby. And Bill Jeffress, another Libby lawyer, maintained that the clips of McClellan would be prejudicial to his client, for they show reporters fiercely grilling McClellan and suggesting that serious wrongdoing had occurred.

Fitzgerald counter-argued: the fact that McClellan did clear Libby indicates there "was no effort to throw him under the bus...Mr. McClellan was standing in front of the bus."

After much back and forth, federal district Judge Reggie Walton ruled that excerpts of McClellan's press briefings could be shown to the jury. Fitzgerald had won this skirmish. And once more, Wells and Jeffress had telegraphed the case they may try to present when the prosecution concludes. The logic of Wells' argument is not yet evident. Libby feared he was being hung out to dry. Perhaps. Even if that were true, though, the White House publicly cleared him before he spoke to the FBI. So why would a White House plot against Libby (that apparently failed--if it existed) affect what Libby would say to the FBI regarding what he had known and said about Valerie Wilson three months earlier?

It doesn't track. But if the defense calls Cheney to the stand--as it has said it might--jurors, no doubt, will want to hear the vice president discuss this sacrifice-Libby-for-Rove skullduggery. They may also want to learn more about the phone call in which Cheney clued in Libby on Valerie Wilson's gig at the CIA. What was Cheney doing gathering information on Wilson at that early point? (Libby told the FBI that he believed Cheney had obtained this information from CIA chief George Tenet.) And after Deborah Bond, an FBI agent, testified for the prosecution on Thursday, there was another matter a juror might want Cheney to explain.

Bond disclosed that during Libby's second FBI interview he said he believed that after he had spoken to Russert (and supposedly had learned anew that Wilson's wife was CIA) he and Cheney discussed whether to disclose Valerie Wilson's CIA connection to the press. But Libby told the FBI he wasn't sure such a conversation had happened.

Still, this was news. That statement probably caused FBI agents and Fitzgerald to wonder during the investigation if Cheney and Libby had conspired to leak information on Joseph Wilson's wife. If Cheney takes the stand, a sharp juror ought to be interested in hearing whether the vice president has anything to say about this. (The safe bet: no.)

On Thursday evening, as the court recessed for the week, Fitzgerald noted that once Bond finishes testifying on Monday, he will play for the jury the seven hours of testimony Libby gave the grand jury. After that, he will call Russert and perhaps one other (unnamed) witness before concluding his case.

Wells and Jeffress then will present their witnesses (should they choose to do so). Will Rove be called to the stand, so they can question him about the plot against Libby? Will Cheney be called to bolster the Single Scapegoat Theory (and to explain other mysteries)? Will Libby's lawyers trot out witnesses who testify about the bitter feuding that went on between the White House and the CIA over the WMD controversy, so they can suggest Libby was an innocent caught in this crossfire? Will they present witnesses who claim the intelligence Wilson attacked was really correct, so Wells and Jeffress can depict Libby as a defender of the truth? Will they offer witnesses who testify that Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, was the guy who first leaked to Novak, so the defense can argue that Armitage, not Libby, should be the fall guy in this caper?

Maybe Wells and Jeffress will merely stick to witnesses who challenge the credibility of prosecution witnesses. Then again, they might turn toward the jurors and blast them with paint guns--that is, overwhelm the jury with a mess of confusion. Libby's lawyers have presented a foundation for doing anything and everything. The bus could go flying off the road.

*****

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.

Libby Trial: Matt Cooper Contradicts Libby

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.

Libby Trial: Judy Miller's Memory Mess

When special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was prepping for the trial of Scooter Libby, he probably looked toward the moment when he would call former New York Times reporter Judith Miller to the stand and thought, We're just going to have to get through that day.

Miller, the controversial journalist whose prewar reporting hyped the WMD threat posed by Iraq, was called as a prosecution witness on Tuesday, and she was pummeled by Bill Jeffress, an attorney for Libby, who has been charged with making false statements to the FBI and grand jury investigating the CIA leak.

Initially, Fitzgerald briskly guided Miller through her account--a story already publicly known. On June 23, 2003, she met with Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House. Libby was frustrated and angry about media accounts--some fueled by intelligence community leaks--that suggested the Bush White House had misrepresented the prewar WMD intelligence. He was particularly upset, according to Miller, about stories that had appeared regarding an unnamed ex-ambassador who had taken a trip to Niger in 2002 to investigate the allegation that Iraq had tried to buy uranium there and who had concluded the charge was unfounded. Libby told Miller the former diplomat was Joseph Wilson and said, as an aside, that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. In her notes, Miller wrote that the wife was employed at the "bureau," a reference to a nonproliferation office within the CIA. She said that this was the first time she had heard anything about Wilson's wife working at the CIA. She also testified that Libby referred to Wilson's trip as a "ruse" and "irrelevancy."

She met with Libby again on July 8--two days after Wilson outed himself as the ex-ambassador in a New York Times op-ed. This time Miller and Libby rendezvoused at the dining room of the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. During the two hour discussion, according to Miller, Libby was "quietly agitated." He defended the administration's use of the prewar intelligence, claiming there had been solid intelligence to back up President George W. Bush's use of the uranium-in-Africa allegation in his 2003 State of the Union speech. Libby maintained that Wilson's reporting had supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger. (That's not how Wilson saw it.) Libby again referred to Wilson's wife and said she was employed at WINPAC--the acronym for the CIA's Center for Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control, a unit of the agency's intelligence directorate. (Libby was wrong. Valerie Wilson was the operations chief of the Joint Task Force on Iraq, a unit within the Counterproliferation Division of the agency's clandestine operations directorate.)

During this meeting, Miller testified, her pen didn't work. But she still managed to take some notes. She didn't explain how. Perhaps she scratched away with the tip of the pen.

She also testified about a third conversation with Libby. This was a July 12, 2003 phone call. The two discussed Wilson's wife, and Miller informed Libby that her paper wasn't interested in pursuing the "Plame story."

Though Fitzgerald had sent Miller to prison for 85 days after she had refused to cooperate with his investigation, she was a to-the-point witness who gave the prosecutor what he wanted: another account showing that Libby was in the know about Valerie Wilson and was discussing her with others (in this case, a reporter) before the leak outing her as a CIA officer appeared in Robert Novak's July 14, 2003 column. Miller's testimony contradicted Libby's claims that in the days prior to the leak he did not know about Valerie Wilson's CIA connection and that he had not leaked any information regarding her to reporters.

Then came Jeffress. He immediately went for the underbelly: Miller's memory. While being questioned by Fitzgerald, Miller acknowledged that in the fall of 2005 when she first appeared before Fitzgerald's grand jury--after getting out of jail--she had completely forgotten about her first meeting with Libby. She told the grand jury only about the July 8 meeting and the July 12 phone call. On the witness stand, she testified that during her initial grand jury appearance, Fitzgerald had asked her to review her notebooks. That night she did so and discovered notes referring to the June 23 meeting at the Old Executive Office Building. She immediately called her lawyer, and soon she was back before the grand jury to talk about that first conversation with Libby.

Jeffress feasted on this. For years, he noted while questioning Miller, she had not remembered the June 23 meeting at all. Then suddenly she could recall details from it. What Libby had said about Wilson's wife. How Libby was behaving. What his mood was. From the time the leak story broke in the summer of 2003 until her second grand jury appearance in fall of 2005, nothing had caused her to recall that meeting, Jeffress noted. "The meeting of June 23 was not memorable to you," Jeffress said, putting it as both a question and declaration. "I didn't remember that it even occurred," Miller replied.

Miller explained that after she reviewed her notes she had a good memory of certain parts of the encounter. Jeffress then quoted Miller's own statements from before the grand jury and from a media interview in which she said her memory was not so sharp about these matters. And he went on and on, clawing at the wound, making this Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter seem like she was so daft she couldn't remember her own shoe size without notes.

This was a twist. When the story first came out in the fall of 2005 that Miller had forgotten her first meeting with Libby, her critics howled. How could she, they wondered (accusingly), have not remembered such an important session? Surely, she was covering up for Libby--or someone. But on the stand, she appeared genuine. She was fighting for her reputation--what's left of it--and did not want to be depicted as a conjurer of untrustworthy memories. Now it was Libby's lawyers (not liberal bloggers) who were assaulting her, challenging her credibility. At one point, when the back and forth became a bit confusing, Jeffress snidely asked, "Do you remember my question?"

It was a thrashing. And by the end of the day, it wasn't over. The trial was sidetracked by a reprise of the issue that landed Miller in jail: whether she would disclose her confidential sources. Had Miller met with other sources around the time of her June 23 meeting with Libby? Jeffress asked. Yes, she said. Who were they? "I don't recall," Miller answered. "Can you name one?" Jeffress asked. Before she could reply, the lawyers--included her own attorney, Robert Bennett--were huddling with Judge Reggie Walton. Was Jeffress asking Miller to reveal sources other than Libby? Would she do so? Libby's lawyers argued that she could not refuse to disclose the names of these other sources. Fitzgerald maintained this was an irrelevant question. Ted Wells, a Libby lawyer, said that Miller would probably say she had forgotten--and he could use such a statement to impeach (further) her credibility. There was much wrangling, and the judge sent the jurors home.

The matter was not fully resolved by the time the judge had to leave. That left open the possibility that Miller might again be asked to talk about her sources. But this time--in yet another twist--Fitzgerald was on her side, trying to help the journalist he had once jailed. However this question would be decided, Miller left the court expecting more punishment from Jeffress. He noted before court recessed that he was not done with her and would resume his romp through the Miller memory mess the next morning.

Jeffress' attack on Miller was no surprise. He and Wells have been doing all they can to question the memories of every prosecution witness. With Miller, it was more brutal. Still, Fitzgerald had called to the stand yet another witness who challenged Libby's statements to the FBI and a grand jury. The jurors in this case will have to ask themselves, are all of the prosecution witnesses wrong? Is this a parade of people who are each misremembering events--and doing so in the same way? Miller added to the quantity, not the quality, of Fitzgerald's case--but quantity is not irrelevant when the issue is they-said/he said.

Earlier in the day--before the Miller massacre--David Addington, Cheney's chief of staff (Libby's replacement), finished his turn in the dock. Addington testified about a conversation he had with Libby shortly before the criminal investigation of the CIA leak began in September 2003. According to Addington, Libby said, "I just want to tell you I didn't do it." Addington did not ask what the "it" was. Libby then asked Addington how a person would know if they had met a CIA employee who was undercover. Addington, who had once worked at the agency, said you might not know unless you saw a document or were told. Addington offered to bring Libby a copy of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, the law that prohibits government employees from disclosing information about secret intelligence officers. And Addington later dropped off a copy with Libby.

One interpretation this exchange would be that Libby--despite his protestation to Addington--was worried he might be a target of the criminal investigation. That could have caused him to lie to the FBI and the grand jury investigating the case. (A Libby advocate might argue that if he believed he had done no wrong, he'd have no reason to lie.)

When Wells had his chance to cross-examine Addington, he fired in several different directions. Wells introduced into evidence a note Libby had taken on June 12, 2003. On this day, The Washington Post had published an article that referred to the Wilson trip without naming the former ambassador.

Libby's note indicates that in a phone conversation that day, Cheney told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the "CP" division--a reference to the CIA's Counterproliferation Division. The note suggests that Cheney shared with Libby other information the vice president had gathered on Wilson and his trip. Cheney also told his chief of staff that he had not known about the Wilson mission and had not received any report on Wilson's findings.

The June 12 note is a piece of evidence that has been cited by the prosecution in pretrial submissions. It shows that Libby learned where Valerie Wilson worked from his boss. The obvious question is, would Libby really have forgotten this information, as he has claimed? The note also indicates that for Cheney the Wilson matter was a priority--enough so that on his own he had obtained information on the then-unnamed ambassador and his trip to Niger. (How Cheney gathered this information on Joseph and Valerie Wilson remains a secret.)

So why did Wells introduce the note? He moved on to another Libby note--one written after Libby had met with Addington following the publication of Wilson's op-ed piece. In that conversation, according to Addington's testimony on Monday, Libby had asked him whether a president had the authority to declassify secrets on his own and whether there would be paperwork if a CIA officer sent a spouse on an overseas mission. Libby's note regarding the meeting recorded the two subjects this way: "1) declass 2) Wilson K." (K is lawyer shorthand for contract.) Wells noted that this document did not contain any reference to a CIA "spouse." He was trying to make a slim point: Libby used the word "spouse" in a June 12 note but did not do so in a note written a month later; so maybe Addington is wrong when he said the two of them talked about a CIA spouse.

Wells also endeavored to advance the Karl-Rove-set-up-Scooter-Libby theory he had previewed in his opening argument. (See here.) He cited a set of notes Libby had taken at a senior staff meeting that indicated Rove was keen on countering Wilson's charges. Then he presented a note written by Cheney when the leak investigation was underway. The White House by this point had publicly (but falsely) claimed that Rove was not involved in the leak. Cheney wanted the same for Libby. The Cheney note reads,

Has to happen today.
Call out to key press saying the same thing about Scooter as Karl.
Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.

The note also contained talking points, written by Libby, that he and Cheney wanted Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, to recite at a press briefing:

I've talked to Libby. I said it was ridiculous about Karl [being involved in the CIA leak] and it is ridiculous about Libby. Libby was not the source of the Novak story. And he did not leak classified information.

Referring to this set of notes, Wells asked, if Libby was "being hung out as a scapegoat in public?" Addington said that he had no idea. But Addington added that after McClellan made a statement reflecting these talking points, he (Addington) told Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, that the White House ought not to discuss criminal investigations in public. But your boss wanted this done, Bartlett told Addington.

Wells was trying to bolster his earlier contention that Libby was somehow turned into a sacrificial lamb by White House powers more interested in protecting Rove. But so far Wells has introduced little to support this narrative. And the evidence he referenced while questioning Addington indicated that the White House press office did what Cheney had asked it to do: protect Libby. That's not how you hang someone out to dry.

Wells and Jeffress are fortunate. They are not bound by memory or truth. They only have to challenge the government's case. They can do so by undermining the prosecution witnesses or by tossing out alternative (and confusing) scenarios, without having to prove any single theory of the case. Or by doing both. With Miller on the stand, they had their best day yet. If only her prewar reporting had been so fiercely challenged.

*****

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.

Libby Trial: Fleischer Tags Libby and Confesses Leaking

Taking the witness stand in the Scooter Libby trial on Monday, Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's former press secretary, could not rely on his old friends, spin and deny. Instead, he shared an account that harmed Libby's defense, that spared the White House a new embarrassment, and that created a riddle.

Testifying as a prosecution witness, Fleischer--who cooperated with special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald only after pleading the Fifth Amendment and obtaining immunity--told the jurors of a lunch he had with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on July 7, 2003. This was one day after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson published an op-ed piece asserting he had inside information showing the White House had twisted the prewar intelligence and a week before the leak outing his wife as a CIA officer appeared in rightwing journalist Robert Novak's column. At the lunch, Libby, according to Fleischer, passed along what Fleischer considered an intriguing "nugget" of information: that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had sent her husband on the fact-finding trip to Niger during which Wilson concluded that the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium there was highly dubious. Libby was even specific about where Wilson's wife worked within the CIA: the Counterproliferation Division, a unit in the agency's clandestine operations directorate. Fleischer said that Libby mentioned the name of Wilson's wife and told him, "This is hush-hush, this is on the QT, not very many people know about this." Fleischer had not heard anything previously about Valerie Wilson.

The conversation was "odd," Fleischer testified. He noted that this was the first time he ever had lunch with Libby and that the vice president's chief of staff was not someone whom Fleischer considered a "source"--that is, a fellow White House official who would regularly tell Fleischer what was happening within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Usually when Fleischer asked Libby questions about White House policies or actions, the "typical response," he said, was that Libby would tell him to check with Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser. After receiving the information from Libby on Valerie Wilson, Fleischer testified, he concluded that the Wilson mission to Niger was the result of "nepotism at the CIA." (Though a classified State Department memorandum written at the request of Libby weeks earlier had noted that Valerie Wilson had organized her husband's trip to Niger, the memo--due to a series of bureaucratic slips--had overstated her involvement in the trip. For a complete account of the misleading memo episode, see the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff: HUBRIS: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War.)

Fleischer's appearance was not so good for Libby, but not so bad for the White House. Once again, Fitzpatrick had a witness testifying that Libby had obtained information on Valerie Wilson and had passed it along. This undermined Libby's sworn statements to the FBI and a grand jury that days after this lunch--when he spoke to Tim Russert of Meet the Press--he knew nothing certain about Wilson's wife and her CIA employment. Fleischer testified confidently, as a fellow accustomed to fielding tough questions could be expected to do. He also admitted that he, too, had leaked information about Valerie Wilson to reporters.

This is what happened, Fleischer said: A day or so after his lunch with Libby, he was on Air Force One in a staff cabin. The president was touring Africa, and the Wilson controversy was raging, as reporters continued to hurl questions at the White House about Bush's use of the Niger charge in his prewar State of the Union. Fleischer was reading a classified CIA account of Wilson's trip that had been handed to him to by Rice. (He and other White House officials thought this document contained information that undermined Joe Wilson's criticism of the administration.) Sitting nearby was White House communications director Dan Bartlett (now counselor to the president). Bartlett was reading another document on the Wilson matter--probably a version of the State Department memo mentioned above. Bartlett, Fleischer said, exclaimed, "I can't believe he or they are saying the vice president sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger....His wife sent him. She works at the CIA." Bartlett wasn't speaking specifically to Fleischer, according to Fleischer; he was just "venting." Fleischer said nothing to Bartlett and kept on reading his own document. But he now had two sources--Libby and Bartlett--on Valerie Wilson's CIA connection.

Then on July 11, when Bush was in Uganda and visiting with children with AIDS, Fleischer sidled up to two reporters traveling with the president: David Gregory of NBC News and John Dickerson, then of Time, now of Slate. The night before, CBS News had reported that the White House had known the uranium-in-Africa charge was false at the time it was placed in Bush's speech, and Fleischer was looking to rebut this damaging charge. He told Gregory and Dickerson about Wilson's wife, hoping this would reinforce the White House claim that it had known nothing about the origins of the Wilson trip or Wilson's findings. But, according to Fleischer, the two reporters didn't react. They didn't take out their notebooks. They didn't ask follow-up questions. "Like a lot of things I said to the press," Fleischer testified, "it had no impact....This said to me that nobody really cares who sent Ambassador Wilson." Neither Gregory nor Dickerson (who was in the courtroom as Fleischer testified) broke the news about Valerie Wilson.

Fleischer's account of the leak-that-went-nowhere left Bartlett in a safe position. Bartlett, in this telling, had merely blurted out his reaction to a classified document. He had not passed the information to Fleischer with the intention of leaking it. Fitzgerald's opening argument made it seem that Bartlett was involved in a leak orchestrated by Fleischer. But Bartlett's participation in the affair--if Fleischer was speaking accurately--was accidental. Libby's, though, was not, according to Fleischer.

There was one big wrinkle in the Fleischer account. Call it the Dickerson Doubt. Dickerson has written that Fleischer did not tell him anything about Valerie Wilson. Describing his conversation with Fleischer, Dickerson in 2006 noted in Slate,

Some low-level person at the CIA was responsible for the mission. I was told I should go ask the CIA who sent Wilson.

In this article, Dickerson did not identify this official as Fleischer, but Hubris reported that Fleischer was his source. Dickerson also noted that an hour after this conversation another senior administration official--in this instance, Bartlett--told him essentially the same thing:

This official also pointed out a few times that Wilson had been sent by a low-level CIA employee and encouraged me to follow that angle. I thought I got the point: He'd been sent by someone around the rank of deputy assistant undersecretary or janitor.

Dickerson's account flat-out contradicts Fleischer's confession. (Gregory has not commented on this episode.) What does that mean?

The defense could have used this contradiction to try to impeach Fleischer's credibility. If Fleischer falsely remembers leaking, then maybe he's also wrong about what happened during his lunch with Libby. But Libby's lawyers want Fleischer to be right about the supposed leak to Dickerson and Gregory. They are building a case--or the innuendo--that Tim Russert was wrong when he told Fitzgerald's grand jury that he knew nothing about Valerie Wilson when he spoke to Libby (and could not have, as Libby has claimed, told Libby anything about Wilson's wife). Libby's attorneys have said that Russert may have had knowledge about Valerie Wilson and her CIA position because he may had heard about it from colleagues at NBC News, such as David Gregory.

It's complicated, but the argument goes like this: Fleischer leaked to Gregory and Dickerson; Gregory told Russert; and Russert told Libby that reporters were hearing that Wilson's wife was CIA. (There's a side benefit to this theory: Dickerson worked with Matt Cooper at Time. Perhaps Dickerson told Cooper about Valerie Wilson, and then Cooper, rather than receiving information on her from Libby, actually passed information to Libby.) But there's at least one problem for the defense. In the indictment of Libby, Fitzgerald noted that the Russert-Libby phone call happened on July 10, 2003. Yet Fleischer's (real or not) leak to Gregory (and Dickerson) occurred on July 11, 2003. To make this part of the defense work, Libby's lawyers have to show--or suggest--the Libby-Russert call occurred at a later time than Fitzgerald has placed it.

In any event, the defense was in a curious position. If it cited Dickerson's account to raise questions about Fleischer's memory, including his recollection of the lunch with Libby, it would have lost the (fanciful) Libby-to-Fleischer-to-Gregory-to-Russert-to-Libby daisy chain. As for what really happened in Uganda, Dickerson has the edge in credibility. First, he's not a former White House press secretary. More important, it's hard to imagine that both Dickerson and Gregory would not have reported new information about the Wilson trip, which was a piping hot story that week. As Dickerson has noted previously, when he subsequently learned that Wilson's wife was a CIA officer, he considered that noteworthy. (He heard this from Cooper, who had gotten a leak from White House aide Karl Rove.) Both he and Cooper then tried to get this information into Time's cover story on the scandal. Their editors, though, left this fact out--which led Cooper and Dickerson to file a story on the newsmagazine's website a few days later.

Dickerson is an inconvenient witness for both sides. The prosecution doesn't want him on the stand. He could impeach the credibility of its best witness so far. And the defense wants him out of the picture. He could undercut its attempt to rattle Russert. He appears to have a get-out-of-the-witness-box-free card. And the mystery of Fleischer's purported leak remains.

Why would Fleischer make up a leak that didn't happen? Did he seek immunity to cover an act that he didn't commit? What's a reporter covering this case--or a reader of the coverage--to make of this? A cascade of theories, no doubt, will pour forth. But this case has had memory issues. And Libby's lawyers will certainly be hammering that larger point--ad nauseum--in the weeks to come.

Other developments? Yes, there were some. When Ted Wells, a Libby attorney, cross-examined Cathie Martin, Cheney's former public affairs chief, he noted that none of the four sets of talking points created by Cheney's office regarding Wilson's charges mentioned Wilson's wife. Wells' point: this was not a matter of much concern for Cheney or Libby. But under questioning from Fitzgerald, Martin conceded that while Libby was in her loop, she was not in his--and that she was unaware of all of Libby's activities regarding the effort to counter Wilson. At the end of her testimony, she looked disappointed.

Later in the day, after Fleischer was done, David Addington, Cheney's current chief of staff, was called as a witness by the prosecution. He testified that sometime during the week after Wilson published his op-ed, Libby and he had a conversation in Libby's small office outside Cheney's West Wing suite. Libby, according to Addington, asked Addington, who used to work at the CIA, what paperwork would exist if a CIA officer sent a spouse on a mission. No names were mentioned, but Addington figured the query was related to the Wilson trip, and he explained to Libby how records are kept at the CIA. Addington told him that there ought to be paperwork documenting such a trip. He also testified that at one point in this conversation Libby "extended his hands out and pushed them down" to indicate that Addington should keep his voice low. Here was yet another indication that Libby had Joe and Valerie Wilson on his mind.

At the end of the day, the prosecution had fared better than the defense. Fleischer presented a puzzle. But he also was a straightforward witness regarding the lunch. Cathie Martin, who testified last week that she had told Libby and Cheney about Valerie Wilson, acknowledged that there was anti-Wilson activity going on in Cheney-land above her paygrade and that Libby was involved in this. And Addington's brief account depicted a Libby who was gathering information on Valerie Wilson in a suspiciously quiet manner. But the witnesses did provide plenty of information that Libby's legal team can use to support a variety of competing narratives, with the aim of confusing jurors. There remains a lot for the jury to sort out--and the prosecution's presentation is only half finished. Then comes the defense.

*****

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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