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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.

The Libby Trial: Cheney's Office Takes the Stand

On Thursday, the Vice President's office was on the stand in the Scooter Libby trial-sort of. The fourth witness to be called by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was Cathie Martin, who during the CIA leak scandal, was Dick Cheney's senior public affairs aide. Currently deputy director of communications and planning at the White House, Martin was a poised and confident witness; she was hardly looking to help the prosecution nail her former colleague. Yet she testified that she had told Libby that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA weeks before that information was leaked--reinforcing Fitzgerald's accusation that Libby lied to the FBI and a grand jury when he claimed that he possessed no direct knowledge of Valerie Wilson and her CIA employment at the time of the leak.

Martin described a conversation she had with William Harlow, the CIA public affairs chief, and though she had no direct recollection of when this phone call happened, she noted it likely occurred around June 11, 2003. At that time, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post was asking Vice President Cheney's office whether it had been involved in former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger (which had been cited in a May 6 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that did not name Wilson). Martin testified that as the result of a call between Scooter Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, and a CIA official (probably Robert Grenier, an earlier witness in the trial), she had been put in contact with Harlow.

During her conversation with Harlow, Martin testified, she asked him what the CIA knew about the trip to Niger taken by the then-unnamed ambassador. Harlow told her the former diplomat was Joseph Wilson and revealed that his wife worked at the CIA. Later that same day, in the vice president's office, she shared with Cheney and Libby what Harlow had told her, including the information that Wilson's wife was employed at the CIA. How did Cheney or Libby respond to this? Fitzgerald asked Martin. "I don't remember any other specific response," she answered.

The significance of this? Fitzgerald had shown once again that Libby was making efforts to gather information on the Wilson trip when little was publicly known about it. As a result of this effort, he was told by Martin that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Ted Wells, a Libby lawyer, tried to depict Martin's report to Cheney and Libby as nothing but an easy-to-forget ten-second snippet. But Martin also testified that Libby was intensely engaged in a campaign to rebut Joseph Wilson's charge that the Bush administration had rigged the case for war by misrepresenting the prewar intelligence--and that Libby had even requested to see transcripts of cable news shows covering the controversy (particularly Chris Matthews' Hardball program). Consequently, a juror could well conclude that information regarding Valerie Wilson's CIA employment was important to Libby and registered with him.

Under cross-examination from Wells, Martin did say that in her many conversations with Libby and Cheney in June and July 2003 about the Wilson imbroglio, only once was Valerie Wilson mentioned--when she shared the information from Harlow with the vice president and his chief of staff.

Wells--and Martin--helped Libby on a different front. During her initial testimony, Fitzgerald asked her about a phone conversation between Libby and Matt Cooper of Time on July 12, 2003. Cooper has said that during this call Libby confirmed for him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA. (That would be leaking classified information.) Libby has told investigators that all he said to Cooper was that he (Libby) had heard that other reporters were saying this about Valerie Wilson. Martin was a witness to Libby's side of the call. Did she, Fitzgerald asked, hear Libby tell Cooper that other journalists were talking about Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection? No, said Martin. That seemed a blow for the defense. But then Wells asked if she had received a phone call while Libby had been talking to Cooper. Yes, she replied. And that meant Martin had not overheard the entire Libby-Cooper conversation. Fitzgerald's blow was undone.

Earlier in the day, Wells explicitly previewed a defense attack that he had only previously hinted at. It came during an attempt to impeach the credibility of Craig Schmall, Libby's onetime CIA briefer, who testified on Wednesday that Libby had mentioned Joseph and Valerie Wilson during a June 14, 2003 briefing. Wells tried to persuade Judge Reggie Walton to allow him to read from a classified document the various matters that Schmall had briefed Libby about that day. Schmall (who briefed Libby and/or Cheney several times a week) had testified he could not recall any of the specifics of that particular briefing, and Wells wanted to suggest that this assertion was not believable. He then could argue that nothing Schmall had told the jury should be accepted--including Schmall's statement that he had written down a reference to Libby's remark about the Wilsons on that morning's briefing. (The page with the handwritten note was entered into evidence.)

Wells told the judge--with the jury out of the room--that he wanted to "paint a picture that [Schmall] should not be believed." But he was not out to discredit just one witness. He claimed that in this case "there is tension between the CIA and the White House and that there "are biases and motivations so that these witnesses from the CIA cannot be believed." In other words, the CIA was--and is--out to get Libby. The judge turned down his request to disclose the contents of the briefing.

Cathie Martin will be back on the stand on Monday. (For the duration of the trial, Fridays are days off.) After she is done, Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary, is scheduled to take the stand. According to Fitzgerald's opening argument, Fleischer leaked Valerie Wilson's CIA identity to NBC News' David Gregory--and did so after obtaining information on Valerie Wilson from both Libby and White House communications director Dan Bartlett. (Gregory did not report that information.) Neither Fleischer, Bartlett, nor Gregory have commented on this new disclosure. Fleischer--who demanded and received immunity from Fitzgerald--could be trouble for Libby and also the White House.

*****

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 Continues With Memory Attacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Libby Trial Opens With Simple Tales and Complex Plots

It's simple, said special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald during his opening argument at the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby: Vice President Dick Cheney's onetime chief of staff lied to the FBI and a grand jury to cover up his and Cheney's involvement in the leak that outed Valerie (Plame) Wilson as a CIA official.

This is a twisted, complicated and dark tale, said Ted Wells, a lead lawyer for Libby: one of conspiracies, bureaucratic infighting, turf wars, backroom deals, terrorist plots (involving nuclear weapons and anthrax) against the United States, and assorted memory lapses, convenient and accidental. Libby merely engaged in no-harm-intended forgetfulness, Wells insisted, and, moreover, he was "set up" by Karl Rove as a "sacrificial lamb" in a White House melodrama starring Cheney, who supposedly was defending Libby from a White House effort designed to protect Rove at all costs.

Both lawyers told the jury that the case--in which Libby faces five charges of obstructing justice, perjury and making false statements to government investigators--is not about the war in Iraq or the administration's use of false information to sell the public on the war.

And as the two legal teams began their courtroom battle, new information was disclosed about the leak affair, including the revelation that Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary at the time of the leak, had identified Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer to NBC News reporter David Gregory a week before the leak appeared in Robert Novak's July 14, 2003 column, and that Fleischer, during the subsequent criminal investigation, took the Fifth Amendment and demanded (and received) immunity before testifying to Fitzgerald's' grand jury. Fleischer told the grand jury that he had learned about Valerie Wilson's CIA affiliation first from Libby and then from Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. (This directly implicated yet two more White House officials in the scandal.) Gregory, though, did not report the information, and he later declined to talk to Fitzgerald about his conversation with Fleischer. Fitzgerald never subpoenaed him. (In a response to an email from a colleague asking about today's disclosure, Gregory emailed, "I can't help you, sorry.") The first day of the trial also brought the news that after the Justice Department opened an investigation of the CIA leak in fall 2003, Cheney pressured the White House press office to make a statement clearing Libby of any wrongdoing.

Libby, Fitzgerald argued, committed a straightforward crime: lying to the FBI and the grand jury, as each was investigating the leak. The case, Fitzgerald acknowledged, has been playing against a large backdrop: the war in Iraq and the controversy regarding the Bush administration's selling of the war. He also conceded that it grew out of the leak scandal and the question of who in the Bush administration had outed Valerie Wilson to reporters after Joseph Wilson publicly accused the White House of having twisted and misrepresented the prewar intelligence. But Fitzgerald attempted to focus the jury on a limited matter: several statements Libby made to the FBI and the grand jury about his role in the leak affair.

In those statements--made during two FBI interviews and two grand jury appearances--Libby said that though he had once possessed official information about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment, he had forgotten all about that, that he then heard about her CIA connection from reporters (mainly, Tim Russert of Meet the Press), and that he subsequently discussed this gossip (not official information) with other reporters. His explanation was essentially this: I forgot to remember what I had once known but had forgotten.

Fitzgerald vowed that he would demonstrate this was a pack of lies. He previewed evidence and testimony cited in the indictment and pretrial submissions that (according to Fitzgerald) shows that Libby in June and early July 2003 was an active gatherer of official (and classified) information on Joseph Wilson and his wife. Fitzgerald pointed to several witnesses who will testify that Libby requested information on the Wilsons from them when they were government officials: Marc Grossman, the No. 3 at the State Department, Robert Grenier, a CIA official, Craig Schmall, a CIA briefer, and Cathie Martin, a spokesperson for Cheney. (Fitzgerald said that Libby called Grenier out of meeting to receive information on the Wilsons from him.) He also noted that Libby, according to Libby's own notes, had learned from Cheney that Valerie Wilson worked at the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA. (This is a unit within the agency's clandestine operations directorate.)

And then Fitzgerald said that he would produce several witnesses to prove that Libby, after obtaining official information on the Wilsons, conveyed some of it to two reporters (Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time) and to the White House press secretary at the time, Ari Fleischer (with the warning the material was "hush-hush").

Libby's story to the FBI and the grand jury was that on July 10, 2003--four days after Joe Wilson had published an op-ed article noting he had inside information proving the administration had misrepresented the case for war--he had called Russert, that Russert had told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, and that he (Libby) had believed that he was learning about her for the first time. (Libby testified that he was "taken aback" when he heard from Russert that Wilson's wife was a CIA official.) Yet, according to Fitzgerald, Libby had already discussed Valerie Wilson and her CIA affiliation with Fleischer on July 7 and with Miller on July 8. "You cannot learn something startling on Thursday that you were giving out on Monday and Tuesday," Fitzgerald declared. He charged that Libby had concocted the Russert tale to "wipe out" the fact that Libby had earlier been told about Valerie Wilson by Cheney. "This is not a case about bad memory," he maintained. Libby, he said, had been caught in a cover-up.

A diagram of Fitzgerald's case would be a straight line: Libby sought official information, he shared this classified material with reporters, he then made up a story to hide all this from investigators. To get a graphic representation of Well's argument, take a large pot of spaghetti--with plenty of sauce--and hurl it against the wall. Then look at the wall.

In his opening statement, Wells said the case was about forgetting--and about White House payback, Karl Rove's manipulations, dueling between the CIA and 1600 Pennsylvania, conspiring between NBC News and the prosecutors, and much more. Libby, he declared, "is totally innocent." He argued that Libby had done nothing wrong, that he had not "pushed" any reporters to write about Valerie Wilson, that that he had no reason to lie, that he was not concerned about losing his job, but that he was "concerned about being set up...about being the scapegoat for this entire Valerie Wilson controversy." Wells claimed that after the criminal investigation had begun, Libby met with Cheney and complained that "people in the White House" were "trying to sacrifice me...and trying to protect Karl Rove." (At that point, White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who had replaced Flesicher, had publicly declared that Rove was not involved in the leak--even though Rove, as would later become public, had been the primary source for the Novak column.) Responding to Libby's gripe, Cheney wrote a note that said, "Not going to protect one staff [and] sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."

The "meat grinder," according to Wells, was the White House's fierce effort to rebut criticisms from Joe Wilson. Libby, he claimed, had indeed talked to reporters about Joe Wilson, but only to challenge Wilson's charges on the merits, not to discuss Wilson's wife. And this had taken place during the intense firestorm that Wilson had set off with his op-ed article. Because the CIA had screwed up the prewar intelligence, Wells suggested, Libby, acting on orders from Cheney and Bush, was trying to combat the popular perception--fueled by Wilson--that the White House had cooked the books on the way to war. After the criminal investigation began, Wells continued, the White House was willing to toss Libby to the wolves because Rove, the mastermind of the GOP, was too valuable to lose.

It was a bit fuzzy. How did Rove set up Libby to make false statements--honestly or not--to the FBI and the grand jury? Wells did not explain that. But his defense had much more to it. While trying to depict Libby as a pawn in a big-picture nightmare, he also characterized the case as even more narrow than did Fitzgerald. He argued that Fitzgerald's prosecution rested on "snippets"of three conversations Libby had with reporters that lasted no longer than 20 or 30 seconds. (Those reporters would be Russert, Cooper and Miller.) These journalists, he said, each did not have the clearest recollections of the calls, and none had good notes of the exchanges. He even noted that Russert--who has testified he did not know anything about Wilson's wife when he spoke with Libby--might be wrong and that it is possible that Russert had heard about Wilson's wife from David Gregory, his colleague at NBC News. But, Wells added, Russert was never asked about this possibility because he cut a deal with Fitzgerald to talk only about his phone call with Libby. What was going on here? Wells wondered, hinting at improper government-media collusion.

Wells also had another explanation of the Russert-Libby meeting. Maybe Libby, when he testified about it, confused Russert with Novak. Wells said that Novak will testify that he did speak to Libby at the time of the Russert conversation and might have told Libby that he was about to publish a column about Wilson's wife. So perhaps Libby had indeed learned about Wilson's wife from a reporter (Novak) and simply had a good-faith memory slip, mistakenly attributing that call to Russert. After all, Wells asked the jurors, who can recall what phone conversations he or she had three months earlier? Libby, he added, "was known in the office for having a bad memory," and Libby was quite busy with national security issues "trying to connect the dots so we don't have another 9/11." (Wells introduced a schedule of the week of July 7, 2003, showing that Libby received briefings every morning that included information about possible terrorism attacks on the United States.)

"The case is far more complex than what you heard," Wells told the jurors, referring to Fitzgerald's opening presentation. He certainly made it seem more complex. He promised to raise critical questions about the credibility of key witnesses. He said he would show Libby had no motive to lie. His strategy is to litigate the controversy, create multiple and intricate narratives, cast doubt on the testimony of reporters and government officials. He's being a good defense attorney. He does not have to prove anything; he only has to sow confusion--so that at least one juror says, I can't sort all this out. Fitzgerald has some strong facts on his side. (How could Libby have testified he was "taken aback" when Russert supposedly told him about Valerie Wilson's CIA connection, if Cheney had already informed him about her CIA position?) But Libby's legal team has a lot of spaghetti to throw at the jury. This will not be an easy trial for either side.

******

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, Day Three: A Tough Search for Jurors

For coverage of the first day of the Libby trial and a deconstruction of Scooter Libby's I-forgot defense, click here. For Day Two, see here.

On the third day of the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the job of finding Washington jurors who do not hold negative views of the George W. Bush administration, its war in Iraq, and Vice President Dick Cheney became harder. Out of the first ten potential jurors screened by the judge and the lawyers, nine were dismissed--most because they said they believe Bush and Cheney are not to be believed. The day began with Juror No. 0420, a woman who is an information technology consultant. She called the war "a tremendous mistake" and "quite a horrendous thing." She noted she would have a difficult time fairly evaluating testimony from Cheney, explaining there was the "potential" that her bias would "leak" into her subconscious. She was gone.

Then came No. 0388, a manager of audits for the Department of Homeland Security. She spends her days sniffing out procurement fraud. When asked about Cheney's ability to tell the truth, she explained she tended to be "skeptical of politicians' credibility"--and that skepticism would extend to Cheney and anyone who worked for him, especially if the matter at hand concerns the administration's response to a critic. "My profession is to be skeptical," she said, explaining that a politician often tries "to shape public opinion" and is not driven by a desire to provide "the most comprehensive presentation." But she insisted that she could evaluate Cheney's and Libby's testimony without bias and that she realized the burden of proof rested with the government. She was dismissed.

No. 0244 told the court he has "strong negative feelings about this current administration and its conduct of the war" and has a friend who is close to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. He lasted less than a minute. No. 0056 said she is a "very partisan Democrat" who had made up her mind about the case. "I would," she said, "start from the presumption that something negative went on...and Mr. Libby revealed information he should not have....I could not presume he was innocent." Excused. No. 1531, a young woman who is an arts reporter for The Washington Post, said it would be tough for her to function as a juror rather than a journalist. She would be sorely tempted, she explained, to share what she learned at the trial with her colleagues at the Post and her live-in boyfriend, who works there. "I'm a gossip," she professed. After federal district court Judge Reggie Walton reminded her she would have to resist such urges, she noted she had a well-formed view regarding Cheney: "I like to believe that as a journalist I can put my feelings aside....[But] my feelings about Vice President Cheney are so strong it would make it very difficult for me....I feel Vice President Cheney puts his business priorities over the good of the country. I don't trust him. And anyone associated with him would have to jump over a hurdle for me to think he was ever telling the truth." Walton didn't wait: "You're excused." (In the media room, a Washington Post reporter cringed.)

A clerical worker at the CIA disclosed that after she had notified the agency's legal office she had been called as a potential juror, a CIA lawyer had talked to her about this case. The attorney told her that Valerie Wilson had been a covert officer at the CIA and her cover had been blown by Libby. She was bounced. No. 1140, a young woman, said, "I believe the vice president would have had the defendant leak." Did she, Walton ask, harbor any preconceived notions about Libby? She replied with one word: "Guilty." She, too, was free to leave. No. 1232, an older African-American man, lasted seconds: "I don't like the Bush administration," he declared, noting he did not believe he could be an impartial juror. Dismissed.

Only six of sixteen potential jurors made it through the screening process today. Walton needs a pool of 36 vetted potential jurors. After such a group is assembled, the prosecution and defense attorneys will then use preemptory challenges to strike would-be jurors. Jury selection will continue into next week, pushing back the opening arguments previously scheduled for January 22.

As the day wore on, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald tussled with the defense attorneys over how far Libby's lawyers could go in grilling jurors about their general views of the Bush administration. "We ought not to tell some jurors [the case is] about politics," he said at one point. And in the middle of the day, Fitzgerald objected when Ted Wells, a Libby lawyer, asked a possible juror--an employee of the National Academy of Sciences--if this juror could put aside any questions he might have about Cheney's credibility with respect to the war. Fitzgerald wanted Wells to limit the credibility issue to potential Cheney testimony on the administration's reaction to Joe Wilson's criticism of its handling of the prewar intelligence. Fitzgerald was trying to prevent yet another juror from being disqualified because he or she questioned Bush and Cheney's justification of the war. Wells acceded to Fitzgerald's request. The juror said he could impartially assess Cheney's testimony related to the leak case, though he called Cheney's selling of the war "a big stretch." This fellow made it to the next round. But it would be surprising if Libby's lawyers did not use a preemptory challenge to keep him off the jury.

The fencing that has gone on between Fitzgerald and Libby's lawyers during jury selection telegraphs what's to come. Fitzgerald will present a narrow case: this is not about the war, not about the Bush administration's misrepresentations; it's about whether one official, Scooter Libby, purposefully lied to FBI agents and a grand jury investigating the Plame leak. Fitzgerald's goal is to keep it simple. Libby said he did not share official information about Valerie Wilson with reporters and only learned about her CIA status from gossipy journalists. Fitzgerald will present evidence and testimony indicating Libby collected classified information on her and then passed it to at least two reporters. Case closed, if Fitzgerald's lucky.

The Libby side wants to create multiple narratives: he was too busy to remember clearly what he said to whom; this prosecution is a result of infighting between various government agencies; he's not the primary leaker in the CIA case; and so on. Create confusion so there is reasonable doubt that Libby intentionally made false statements. But before any of that can happen, a few more jurors have to be found.

******

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, Day Two: Watch Out for Juror No. 0677

For coverage of the first day of the Libby trial and a deconstruction of Scooter Libby's I-forgot defense, click here.

The second day of the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was again devoted to selecting a jury. The task at hand remains finding sixteen Washington residents (twelve jurors and four alternates) who hold no harsh opinions about the credibility of the Bush administration--particularly that of Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been named by the defense as a possible witness for his former chief of staff. The quickest way off this jury has been to admit one possesses strong doubts about Bush crowd's honesty in selling the case for war in Iraq. Juror No. 1298 said that she liked "to think" she could be "mature enough" to allow her respect for the presumption of innocence to trump her concerns about the Bush administration. But when federal district court Judge Reggie Walton asked if a witness from the Bush administration would have a "strike against them," she replied, "Probably." He responded, "We appreciate you being here." In other words, you can go now. Juror No. 1980 bluntly said, "I cannot believe any statement from the Bush administration." She was told her services would no longer be needed.

Of the first 24 potential jurors questioned by the judge, the prosecutors and the defense attorneys, eight were dismissed. (Some had reasons for being let go besides being administration critics.) A few who mildly expressed questions about the Bush administration--but who claimed they could still fairly evaluate the testimony of Cheney or any other Bush administration witness--were allowed to proceed to the second round. Yet Libby's attorneys will later be able to remove them from the juror with preemptory challenges.

It could well be that the jury ends up with no members who suspect that the Bush White House deliberately misrepresented the case for war. Can someone who holds such a view not fairly assess the testimony and evidence in the case of a senior Bush administration official charged with lying to the FBI and a grand jury? What if a potential juror enters the courtroom with the firm belief that Cheney and other Bush aides are believable? Would that not be a bias that would create a disadvantage for the prosecution?

One potential juror who handles information technology business development at Lockheed Martin noted that she respects the commander in chief and Bush's "reasons for going to Iraq." She explained that citizens outside the government are not privy to enough information to second-guess such presidential decision-making. Is that not a prejudice (perhaps an unhealthy one) in favor of Bush administration officials? She also said that she is currently chasing a billion dollars in federal contracts for Lockheed Martin. Might she have an interest in pleasing administration officials? She was not kicked out of the potential juror pool; special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald ought to take a closer look at her in the next round.

Lawyers and philosophers can debate what comprises bias and how to vet assumptions held by potential jurors. But it's certainly a gain for Libby that Washingtonians who believe the Bush administration misled the nation into war are not permitted to judge his actions.

And then there's Juror No. 0677. She is a television producer. She claimed she had paid attention to the case in a "circumfery" manner, and she has booked some of the journalists involved in the case. She was questioned about her ties to these reporters and whether she could evaluate their testimony without favor. She said yes. As for Cheney, she said, "I don't have any objective feelings about whether he would be more or less credible in this case."

She also mentioned that she was once an intern at the National Journalism Center and then an intern at The Washington Times, the conservative newspaper owned by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. There were no queries from the judge and lawyers about these connections. Yet might she be a conservative harboring pro-administration inclinations? Though the National Journalism Center has a bland name, it is a rightwing outfit that trains young conservative journalists and finds them jobs. Not all of its graduates are ideologically minded. But the group was launched in part by the American Conservative Union. It has received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation, leading conservative foundations. (The John M. Olin Foundation funded itself out of business in 2005.) Several years ago, the National Journalism Center was taken over by another conservative group, the Young Americas Foundation.

Jurors ought not be blackballed for their political views. But if a National Journalism Center graduate makes it on to the jury, the Libby legal team would have reason to be pleased. Fitzgerald might want to ask her a few more questions.

******

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, Day One: Can You Trust Cheney?

"Would any of you have any difficulty fairly judging the believability of former or present members of the Bush Administration?"

In a Washington courtroom on Tuesday morning, federal district court Judge Reggie Walton read that question to the pool of potential jurors, and that was a fair way of summing up the big question of the trial: did Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff lie to cover up his own participation in a White House campaign that was mounted to protect the Bush administration's misleading case for war in Iraq?

Libby is on trial for having made false statements to FBI and a grand jury investigating the leaking of Valerie Wilson's CIA identity. But his credibility (or lack thereof) is a reflection of the administration's credibility (or lack thereof). Yet due to the normal workings of a federal court, Libby will be judged by Washington, DC, residents who are in a distinct minority: people who have not already concluded that Bush officials are not to be trusted.

Libby's defense is that he forgot the truth when he appeared before FBI agents and the grand jury. At issue is what he said about his involvement in the CIA leak. The reality is this: in June and July 2003, when the White House was trying to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (who was accusing the administration of exaggerating the prewar intelligence), Libby, as part of this effort, disclosed information about Wilson's wife (a.k.a Valerie Plame) to two reporters--Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time. After the Plame leak became a criminal matter, Libby (who was not a source for the Robert Novak column that outed Valerie Wilson) told investigators that he had learned about Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection from reporters and had passed this information along to other reporters. In other words, he was just sharing gossip, not official information; he had no reason to know if this hearsay was true.

The problem (for Libby) is this: Fitzgerald has developed plenty of evidence showing that Libby actively sought and received information on Joseph Wilson and his wife before the whole Wilson imbroglio detonated and before Libby spoke to reporters. This information--which noted that Wilson's wife was a CIA officer--was classified. It came to him from the State Department, the CIA and Cheney.

So Libby's faulty memory defense goes beyond a simple I-forgot-who-said-what. What he--or his lawyers--claim is that he completely forgot his own attempts to gather material on Wilson (and also forgot the information he obtained) and that when reporters several weeks later supposedly passed him rumors about Valerie Wilson, this did not jog his memory and cause him to recall what he had previously known. One major obstacle for Libby is that the reporters in question--including NBC's Tim Russert, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, Cooper and Miller--do not support his version of events.

More important, Libby's account relies on two purported major memory lapses that may be difficult for a jury to accept: that after collecting material on Wilson and his wife, Libby had no memory of doing so and that he completely confused his recollection of conversations he had with the reporters. Libby is essentially arguing that he forgot to remember what he had once known but had forgotten.

Yet Libby's advocates claim that Cheney's former chief of staff was the victim of a minor memory slip because he was a busy guy. On NPR the day the trial began, Ted Olson, the former solicitor general and conservative activist, said, "It's true. If you are involved in high-pressure situations....in the afternoon you don't remember exactly what you did in the morning." And when I ran into Lanny Davis, the former spinner for President Bill Clinton and Yale classmate of George W. Bush, during the trial's lunch break, he insisted that Libby might have indeed misremembered events. "That's what happens when you're doing push-back," Davis insisted. If Cheney is called as a witness by Libby's attorneys--as is expected--his testimony will presumably bolster such an argument.

Will a jury go for this? Will jurors believe that Libby, the ever-attentive aide, forgot within weeks that Cheney had told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA?

All that will be decided when the jury votes. But first, jurors have to be selected. As Judge Walton, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, and Libby's lawyers reviewed the initial nine prospective jurors--searching for people with little knowledge and few opinions of the case--they found some who said they could not be impartial. One young woman noted that she was "completely without objectivity" regarding the integrity of Bush administration officials. She did not believe them. She was gone. After being extensively questioned, a financial planner conceded that if Cheney's testimony was contradicted by another witness he could not regard the vice president as equally credible. He, too, was excused.

Walton hopes to have jurors selected by the end of Thursday, and opening arguments are scheduled for Monday. But it may be tough for the judge to find citizens who truly have no hard-and-fast views on the honesty of Cheney and the Bush administration. And that's the point.

******

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.

Bush's Reality-Based Desperation

George W. Bush finally has dipped his toe into the reality-based pool.

Standing in the White House library--because his PR guides wanted him to seem "conversational"--the president delivered a long-in-the-hyping speech on Iraq on Wednesday night, and he conceded what the American people have already figured out: his war is not faring well. Shortly before the November elections, Bush declared, "we're winning" in Iraq. With public opinion polls showing that close to three-quarters of the nation disapprove of his handling of the war, Bush wanted to demonstrate that he, too, is aware that Iraq is a mess. So he said, "The situation in Iraq is...unacceptable to me....Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." But here's the obvious question: given the president's history of false and misleading statements about the war and his record of poor decision-making related to the war, why should anyone accept anything he says or proposes now? He has no credibility--and far too long of a resume of failure. One speech--standing or sitting--will not make a difference in how Americans regard Bush and the war. There will be no surge of popular support for his newest plan: sending 21,000 additional US troops to Iraq for a last-chance stab at securing and stabilizing Baghdad.

Bush's announcement of this escalation came as no surprise. Critics and advocates of such a thrust have been debating the idea for weeks, anticipating Bush would order such a move. After all, it seemed the only choice left available to pro-war partisans. But the whole notion rests upon a rather iffy proposition: that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shares Bush's vision and can deliver. Maliki is Bush's lifeline in Iraq. Bush's escalation can only succeed if Maliki's government does what Bush says it will do: clamp down on the sectarian violence that is partly fueled by Shiites who are part of Maliki's government. In his speech, Bush credulously quoted a Maliki statement from last week: "The Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation." And Bush noted that Maliki has pledged that there will be no "political or sectarian interference" in the coming campaign to pacify Baghdad. As a cynical foreign policy realist might say, Isn't it pretty to think so?

Maliki's word is not much better than Bush's. Parts of his government have protected--if not sponsored--Shiite death squads. And two weeks ago, Maliki told The Wall Street Journal that he wanted to bow out as prime minister before his term expires. Bush's reliance on Maliki's promises and character brings to mind his 2001 endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy....I was able to get a sense of his soul." Without a sincere and successful effort from Maliki and his colleagues, Bush's plan has no real meaning. And that means the lives of US soldiers in Iraq will depend upon the integrity and competence of a leader who so far has failed and who recently expressed a desire to abdicate.

What's going to change on the Iraqi homefront to make the deployment of more American troops worthwhile? Bush said that Maliki's government has to meet a series of benchmarks (including assuming responsibility for security in all provinces by November, passing a law that ensures the sharing of oil revenue, spending $10 billion on reconstruction projects that create jobs, and reforming the draconian de-Baathification laws), and he reported that he had warned Maliki that the US commitment to Maliki's government is "not open-ended." But can Bush pressure Iraq's political actors to ignore domestic politics and behave in a fundamentally different manner than they have to date? Can the White House count on the current leaders in Baghdad to mount a multi-billion-dollar New Deal within months--and do so free of political and financial corruption? (Bush noted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "will soon" appoint a "reconstruction coordinator" in Baghdad "to ensure better results" for US economic assistance being spent in Iraq. Why does no such animal exist--after nearly four years of botched and fraudulent reconstruction spending?) And how does Bush define "not open-ended"? In discussing his so-called surge, Bush never used the word "temporary."

Bush is doing what could be expected: digging a deeper hole in Iraq. It's possible that sending more troops might improve security in Baghdad and that doing so might create breathing space that might allow for some measure of political reconciliation. It's just as possible--if not more so--that the deployment of additional troops to Baghdad will do nothing other than force sectarian militants to do violence elsewhere and not address the basic factors driving the chaos and conflict that has been unleashed by Bush's war. Bush is merely placing a bet; the chips are the lives of American soldiers.

Bush's speech--make that, conversation--was absent soaring rhetoric. He did claim that the war in Iraq was essential to both the war on terrorism and the American mission to spread liberty. But it seemed that even he has come to realize that the time for such easy sentiments has passed. Americans, he acknowledged, want to know what he's going to do to undo the disaster in Iraq. He cannot say--as did James Baker and the other members of the Iraq Study Group--that there is no good solution for the problem he created in Iraq. So Bush is escalating the conflict. For him, there's not much choice. Staying the course would be unsellable. And extrication without victory is not an option. He has painted himself--and Americans and Iraqis--into a bloody red corner.

In a moment of quasi-candor, Bush noted, "Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties." Indeed, Bush has gotten around to recognizing reality--at least its most obvious elements. Yet he still is boxed in by his earlier refusals to do so. As a consequence, Bush's war in Iraq is about to become larger.

*****

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.

Kristol Clear at Time

The market doesn't work -- not when it comes to conservative commentators.

Before the Iraq war, rightwing (and middle-of-the-road) pundits claimed Saddam Hussein was a dire WMD threat, that he was in cahoots with al Qaeda, that the war was necessary. The neoconservative cheerleaders for war also argued that an invasion of Iraq would bring democracy to that nation and throughout the region. They were wrong. But they have paid no price for their errors. They did not have to serve in Iraq. None, as far as I can tell, have had sons or daughters harmed or killed in the fighting there. They did not have to bear higher taxes, because George W. Bush has charged the costs of this military enterprise to the national credit card. Though they miscalled the number-one issue of the post-9/11 period, they did not lose their influential perches in the commentariat. Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, Gary Schmitt, Danielle Pletka and others (including non-neocon Thomas Friedman) who blew it on Iraq still regularly appear on op-ed pages and television news shows, pitching their latest notions about Iraq, Iran or other matters.

Foremost among this band is William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and former chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle. Kristol, a Fox News regular, has not seen his standing as a go-to conservative pundit suffered. Moreover, he has been rewarded with a plum posting. Time magazine's new managing editor, Richard Stengel, has invited Kristol to become what Stengel calls a "star" columnist for the magazine.

Both Kristol and Stengel are likable fellows. I usually enjoy debating Kristol on television or radio. He's no hater, and he's no autopilot partisan. Stengel is a thoughtful and cerebral person who once was a senior adviser to cerebral Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat. So there's nothing personal when I ask, why in the hell does Stengel believe that what America needs now is more Bill Kristol? (Slate media cop Jack Shafer criticized Stengel's pick of Kristol by noting that "Kristol isn't much of a deviation from Charles Krauthammer, an occasional Time 'Essay' writer." Friendship declared: Shafer is a pal of mine.)

It's too late to affect Stengel's decision, but let's take this occasion to review Kristol's record on Iraq, courtesy of a rather cursory Nexis search. It holds no surprises.

On September 11, 2002, as the Bush administration began its sales campaign for the coming war, Kristol suggested that Saddam Hussein could do more harm to the United States than al Qaeda had: "we cannot afford to let Saddam Hussein inflict a worse 9/11 on us in the future."

On September 15, 2002, he claimed that inspection and containment could not work with Saddam: "No one believes the inspections can work." Actually, UN inspectors believed they could work. So, too, did about half of congressional Democrats. They were right.

On September 18, 2002, Kristol opined that a war in Iraq "could have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East."

On September 19, 2002, he once again pooh-poohed inspections: "We should not fool ourselves by believing that inspections could make any difference at all." During a debate with me on Fox News Channel, after I noted that the goal of inspections was to prevent Saddam from reaching "the finish line" in developing nuclear weapons, Kristol exclaimed, "He's past that finish line. He's past the finish line."

On November 21, 2002, he maintained, "we can remove Saddam because that could start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy."

On February 2, 2003, he claimed that Secretary of State Colin Powell at an upcoming UN speech would "show that there are loaded guns throughout Iraq" regarding weapons of mass destruction. As it turned out, everything in Powell's speech was wrong. Kristol was uncritically echoing misleading information handed him by friends and allies within the Bush administration.

On February 20, 2003, he summed up the argument for war against Saddam: "He's got weapons of mass destruction. At some point he will use them or give them to a terrorist group to use...Look, if we free the people of Iraq we will be respected in the Arab world....France and Germany don't have the courage to face up to the situation. That's too bad. Most of Europe is with us. And I think we will be respected around the world for helping the people of Iraq to be liberated."

On March 1, 2003, Kristol dismissed concerns that sectarian conflict might arise following a US invasion of Iraq: "We talk here about Shiites and Sunnis as if they've never lived together. Most Arab countries have Shiites and Sunnis, and a lot of them live perfectly well together." He also said, "Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president." And he maintained that the war would be a bargain at $100 to $200 billion. The running tab is now nearing half a trillion dollars.

On March 5, 2003, Kristol said, "I think we'll be vindicated when we discover the weapons of mass destruction and when we liberate the people of Iraq."

Such vindication never came. Kristol was mistaken about the justification for the war, the costs of the war, the planning for the war, and the consequences of the war. That's a lot for a pundit to miss. In his columns and statements about Iraq, Kristol displayed little judgment or expertise. He was not informing the public; he was whipping it. He turned his wishes into pronouncements and helped move the country to a mismanaged and misguided war that has claimed the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. That's not journalism.

In an effectively functioning market of opinion-trading, Kristol's views would be relegated to the bargain basement. And he ought to be doing penance, not penning columns for Time. But -- fortunate for him -- the world of punditry is a rather imperfect marketplace.

*****

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.

Baker Report Slaps Bush, Takes the Middle Ground

James Baker did not enter the Senate committee room bearing two tablets. But the Bush clan adviser and former secretary of state had high expectations to meet Wednesday morning when he and his fellow commissioners of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group publicly disclosed at a Capitol Hill press conference their collective wisdom on how to fix George W. Bush's war in Iraq--if, as they more than once noted, that's possible. Baker and his colleagues presented no surprises--given a week's worth of leaks about the report's findings. But they made it official: the Washington establishment has judged Bush's management of the war a failure.

No such bold statement exists in the 142-page report. And before the scores of reporters and dozens of camera crews, Baker, former Representative Lee Hamilton, and the eight other ISG poohbahs offered no harsh words for the fellow Baker got into the White House. Yet the report is unequivocal. "The situation in Iraq," it says, "is grave and deteriorating," and the Bush administration must "pursue different policies."

Citing such statements, I asked Democratic power-lawyer Vernon Jordan, one of the commisioners, if the report is an outright repudiation of Bush's handling of the war. Flashing a wide smile, he replied, "That's implicit." Baker has politely sent a message to Bush the Younger: you screwed up.

The report is both a political and policy document. By declaring that Bush's current approach is misguided, the Baker-Hamilton commission creates greater space for a debate over alternatives. Its report undermines Bush's recent claims that "we're winning" in Iraq and that he has "a strategy for victory." You're not and you don't, the report retorts (between the lines). This slap from Baker and the other Republican members (former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former Senator Alan Simpson, and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger) is significant. When has such a group of Washington influentials offered a stinging indictment--even if gently--of the defining mission of a president from their own party? This report comes close to being a vote of no confidence from the Republican elite.

Having dismissed Bush's prosecution of the war, Baker and his comrades try to fill the vacuum with 79 mostly middle-of-the-road policy recommendations. They do not side with the withdrawalists who urge initiating disengagement immediately or within months. ("Precipitous withdrawal," Baker maintained, "could lead to a blood bath and wider regional war.") They do not endorse the proposal from neoconservatives and Senator John McCain for dispatching more troops to Iraq. ("Sustained increases in U.S. troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq," the report says, adding, "we do not have the troops.") They do not support dividing Iraq into parts. ("It could not be managed on an orderly basis," Baker said, and partition could cause "a humanitarian disaster or broad-based civil war.")

The commission calls for a pullback of combat troops by the first quarter of 2008--"subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground"--as part of shifting the U.S. military mission from combat to training and support operations. (Bush, the commission notes, should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq.) This mission switch, according to the commission, must occur in tandem with a "diplomatic offensive to build consensus for stability in Iraq and the region"--an effort that would include approaching Iran and Syria and seeking "a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts." The Baker gang proposes creating an Iraq International Support Group that would involve all countries bordering Iraq and other nations in the region and world. The commission also recommends that the United States pressure the Iraqi government concerning "milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance." The report lists various benchmarks Washington should demand of the Iraqis, including passing a law governing oil revenue sharing (by early 2007), completing "reconciliation efforts" (by May 2007), gaining control of the army (by April 2007), and appreciating the value of the Iraqi dinar by 10 percent to combat inflation (by the end of this year). And the pressure must be explicit. If the Iraqi government does not make "substantial progress," the report notes, the Bush administration "should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the government."

Is all this truly "a better way forward," as the report puts it? It certainly is better than the muddle-through approach of the Bush administration. The report lays out specific ways the US military should attempt to improve the training of Iraqi security forces--mainly by increasing the number of U.S. military personnel embedded with Iraqi units. And withdrawing combat troops is a key part of the plan. But one can easily pick apart the fundamental recommendations. The US military has already trained 300,000 Iraqi troops and police officers--or so Vice President Dick Cheney claims--and the program has been a failure. The report cites "significant questions" about the abilities and loyalties of Iraqi units. "The state of the Iraqi police is substantially worse than that of the Iraqi army," the ISG concludes. Is there reason to believe that a new round of training of security forces in this highly fractured state can be done in a manner that works?

The same goes for other recommendations. The report urges both supporting and applying pressure on "the Iraqi government." Is Bush nimble enough to do this? More important, is the Iraqi government truly a working and viable entity that can be effectively assisted and nudged simultaneously? "Key players within the government too often act in their sectarian interest," the report says. "Iraq's Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders frequently fail to demonstrate the political will to act in Iraq's national interest, and too many Iraqi ministries lack the capacity to govern effectively." It adds that sectarian militias "are currently seen as legitimate vehicles of political action." The report sums up a primary obstacle:

Sunni politicians told us that the U.S. military has to take on the militias; Shia politicians told us that the U.S. military has to help them take out the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda. Each side watches the other. Sunni insurgents will not lay down arms unless the Shia militias are disarmed. Shia militias will not disarm until the Sunni insurgency is destroyed. To put it simply: there are many armed groups within Iraq, and very little will to lay down arms.

How to break this deadlock? The report does not say. And Baker conceded that Iran might have no interest in participating in a diplomatic endeavor designed to stabilize Iraq. He was more optimistic about Syria: "With respect to Syria, there's some strong indications that they would be in a position if we were able to enter into a constructive dialogue, that they could--would be in a position to help us and might want to help us."

At the press conference, Baker, Hamilton and Company discussed political divisions in the United States more than they did those in Iraq. They repeatedly echoed the report's call for the forging of a bipartisan political consensus on Iraq. Baker, the commissions and their report point to the divisive debate within the United States as a critical problem. Whether that's so or not, they left untouched a bigger matter: will Bush listen (to them or anyone else) and chart a different course?

The commissioner met with Bush prior to the press conference, and Hamilton said he was "immensely pleased today when President Bush indicated to us that this report presents to the American people a common opportunity to deal with the problems in Iraq." But the report is more than an "opportunity." It's a specific plan resting on ideas Bush and his aides have already shoved aside. The Bush White House has indicated it has no interest in discussing the Iraq mess with Iran and Syria. Bush has repeatedly stuck with an open-ended commitment: US troops will stay in Iraq until the mission is completed. The Baker commission--as limited as its recommendations may be--is asking Bush to change policy in a dramatic fashion. Does Bush, one reporter asked, "have the capacity to pull a 180?" Baker replied, "I never put presidents I work for on the couch."

But--couch or no couch--that is the question. Bush's intentions are more important than the middle-of-the-road/give-it-one-more-shot particulars of the ISG recommendations. The commission is going out of business. Its members will be testifying before various congressional panels in the weeks and months ahead. But they will not be pressing Bush in any organized way to adopt their proposals--or to alter his own approach. What matters more than the merits of Recommendation No. 37 ("Iraqi amnesty proposals must not be undercut in Washington by either the executive or the legislative branch") is whether Bush accepts the report's fundamentals--Iraq is getting worse and his policies have failed--and whether he is willing to reconsider what to do in Iraq.

At the press conference, Baker talked about improving the "chances for success," not about victory. "We stayed away" from using the word "victory," he said. Hamilton observed, "I don't know if [Iraq] can be turned around." No one connected to the commission positioned him- or herself as a policy savior. "There is no guarantee for success in Iraq," the Baker report says, noting that "the ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing. Time is running out." Baker readily acknowledges his panel's recommendations might not do the trick. There's little hubris within the report.

On the first page, the panel notes, "Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people in order to win their support." That suggests "our leaders"--meaning the president--has not been so. To their credit, the ISG commissioners frankly concede--all too willingly--that their proposals might not work. But now that the Baker report is finally done and the Bush family's Mr. Fixit has declared no magical solution exists, the Iraq debate reverts to the basics: can Bush candidly admit Iraq is a debacle and can he ponder meaningful alternatives to the present course? For that question, there's no answer from the wise men (and one wise woman) of Baker's study group.

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.

Baker Report Puts Bush in a Corner

It's crunch time for George W. Bush.

He has to decide whether or not to change his Iraq policy, as James Baker, his father's secretary of state, weighs in with a report that applies much pressure on him. According to Friday's edition of The Washington Post, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group chaired by Baker and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton will recommend next week that Bush withdraws nearly all US combat troops from Iraq by early 2008. Baker's group attaches qualifiers to its call for this redeployment, noting such a drawdown should occur only if circumstances on the ground permit it. (And this pullout would be accompanied by moves aimed at enhancing US support of Iraqi military units, such as embedding US troops within Iraqi units.) But even Baker's conditional call for disengagement is a sharp retort to Bush, who has repeatedly dismissed the notion of withdrawing troops until, as he puts it, "the mission is completed." The commission's report--if the leaked accounts are correct--will send a message to Bush: Iraq is not working, you must shift strategies.

The simple question is, will he? Doing so would be an admission that he has botched the job. Bush may not be willing to--or able to--concede that difficult point. But his father's crowd--and their Democratic partners on the panel--is telling him straight-up that his Iraq project (the defining element of his presidency) is failing. Can Bush process this?

The congressional Democratic leadership has been much helped by Baker's panel. Though the Democrats have not forged a consensus position, most have backed some version of withdrawal. The Baker report will provide them plenty of political cover. After all, can Karl Rove attack Baker and fellow commission members Edwin Meese III (Ronald Reagan's attorney general), Sandra Day O'Connor (a former Supreme Court justice nominated by Reagan), and Alan Simpson (former Republican senator) as cut-and-rum wimps who want the terrorists to win? Talking about withdrawing US troops (and transforming the mission in Iraq from combat to support) is now perfectly respectable. Bush, Dick Cheney and administration aides have been nudged into a corner.

The Iraq Study Group "embraced everything we asked for," gloats one Democratic Senate staffer. During the group's deliberation, Senator Harry Reid, the incoming Senate majority leader, and Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat who will assume chairmanship of the armed services committee, met with Baker and the commissioners. Reid and Levin presented them with a memo that called for starting a phased withdrawal, initiating a regional diplomatic initiative, and appointing a special envoy. "It looks like the Baker report is an endorsement of our position," this Senate aide says. "It's aligned with our call for a change in direction. Baker-Hamilton will add to the momentum for change."

As conditional as the commission's withdrawal recommendation might be, its report is indeed a slap at Bush. It also undermines conservatives--such as Senator John McCain--who have proposed sending far more troops to Iraq, and the report undercuts neocons who have dismissed the idea of engaging Iran and Syria in the effort to stabilize Iraq.

The Baker-Hamilton commission has not come up with a roadmap to success. Pulling out US combat troops could be accompanied by greater chaos and conflict in Iraq--and perhaps in the region. (In a Washington Post op-ed several days ago, Saudi adviser Nawaf Obaid warned that Saudi Arabia might intervene in Iraq to protect Sunnis--even if this could lead to war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.) But Baker has rendered a harsh judgment on the son's war. He has shifted the debate. Withdrawal--of some kind--is now the majority position.

Will Bush acknowledge this new reality? Or might he become a Captain Queeg-like character, isolated in his adherence to a discredited and failing policy of muddling through? Bush does remain the commander in chief. Until congressional Democrats become bold enough to challenge his conduct of the war by withholding funds for it (a point that most Democrats are not yet near), Bush gets to call the shots in Iraq. He and Cheney can ignore Baker's advice. But now that the Baker report is out, Bush has a fundamental choice: to admit he has messed up and change direction or to stay the course (even though he's no longer allowed to use that term). For whatever faults the Baker report might have, Baker deserves credit for pushing Bush the Younger--whose presidency Baker enabled by winning the Florida recount battle--to this moment of reckoning, even if it's a moment Bush refuses to recognize.

******

NEW INTELL CHAIR: On Friday morning, House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi named Representative Silvestre Reyes chairman of the House intelligence committee. There's nothing objectionable about Reyes, but she missed an opportunity to make a stellar choice by picking Representative Rush Holt for the post. To learn why, see my recent column on this matter here.

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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