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.