Taking the witness stand in the Scooter Libby trial on Monday, Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s former press secretary, could not rely on his old friends, spin and deny. Instead, he shared an account that harmed Libby’s defense, that spared the White House a new embarrassment, and that created a riddle.
Testifying as a prosecution witness, Fleischer–who cooperated with special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald only after pleading the Fifth Amendment and obtaining immunity–told the jurors of a lunch he had with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby on July 7, 2003. This was one day after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson published an op-ed piece asserting he had inside information showing the White House had twisted the prewar intelligence and a week before the leak outing his wife as a CIA officer appeared in rightwing journalist Robert Novak’s column. At the lunch, Libby, according to Fleischer, passed along what Fleischer considered an intriguing “nugget” of information: that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and had sent her husband on the fact-finding trip to Niger during which Wilson concluded that the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium there was highly dubious. Libby was even specific about where Wilson’s wife worked within the CIA: the Counterproliferation Division, a unit in the agency’s clandestine operations directorate. Fleischer said that Libby mentioned the name of Wilson’s wife and told him, “This is hush-hush, this is on the QT, not very many people know about this.” Fleischer had not heard anything previously about Valerie Wilson.
The conversation was “odd,” Fleischer testified. He noted that this was the first time he ever had lunch with Libby and that the vice president’s chief of staff was not someone whom Fleischer considered a “source”–that is, a fellow White House official who would regularly tell Fleischer what was happening within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Usually when Fleischer asked Libby questions about White House policies or actions, the “typical response,” he said, was that Libby would tell him to check with Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser. After receiving the information from Libby on Valerie Wilson, Fleischer testified, he concluded that the Wilson mission to Niger was the result of “nepotism at the CIA.” (Though a classified State Department memorandum written at the request of Libby weeks earlier had noted that Valerie Wilson had organized her husband’s trip to Niger, the memo–due to a series of bureaucratic slips–had overstated her involvement in the trip. For a complete account of the misleading memo episode, see the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff: HUBRIS: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War.)
Fleischer’s appearance was not so good for Libby, but not so bad for the White House. Once again, Fitzpatrick had a witness testifying that Libby had obtained information on Valerie Wilson and had passed it along. This undermined Libby’s sworn statements to the FBI and a grand jury that days after this lunch–when he spoke to Tim Russert of Meet the Press–he knew nothing certain about Wilson’s wife and her CIA employment. Fleischer testified confidently, as a fellow accustomed to fielding tough questions could be expected to do. He also admitted that he, too, had leaked information about Valerie Wilson to reporters.
This is what happened, Fleischer said: A day or so after his lunch with Libby, he was on Air Force One in a staff cabin. The president was touring Africa, and the Wilson controversy was raging, as reporters continued to hurl questions at the White House about Bush’s use of the Niger charge in his prewar State of the Union. Fleischer was reading a classified CIA account of Wilson’s trip that had been handed to him to by Rice. (He and other White House officials thought this document contained information that undermined Joe Wilson’s criticism of the administration.) Sitting nearby was White House communications director Dan Bartlett (now counselor to the president). Bartlett was reading another document on the Wilson matter–probably a version of the State Department memo mentioned above. Bartlett, Fleischer said, exclaimed, “I can’t believe he or they are saying the vice president sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger….His wife sent him. She works at the CIA.” Bartlett wasn’t speaking specifically to Fleischer, according to Fleischer; he was just “venting.” Fleischer said nothing to Bartlett and kept on reading his own document. But he now had two sources–Libby and Bartlett–on Valerie Wilson’s CIA connection.
Then on July 11, when Bush was in Uganda and visiting with children with AIDS, Fleischer sidled up to two reporters traveling with the president: David Gregory of NBC News and John Dickerson, then of Time, now of Slate. The night before, CBS News had reported that the White House had known the uranium-in-Africa charge was false at the time it was placed in Bush’s speech, and Fleischer was looking to rebut this damaging charge. He told Gregory and Dickerson about Wilson’s wife, hoping this would reinforce the White House claim that it had known nothing about the origins of the Wilson trip or Wilson’s findings. But, according to Fleischer, the two reporters didn’t react. They didn’t take out their notebooks. They didn’t ask follow-up questions. “Like a lot of things I said to the press,” Fleischer testified, “it had no impact….This said to me that nobody really cares who sent Ambassador Wilson.” Neither Gregory nor Dickerson (who was in the courtroom as Fleischer testified) broke the news about Valerie Wilson.
Fleischer’s account of the leak-that-went-nowhere left Bartlett in a safe position. Bartlett, in this telling, had merely blurted out his reaction to a classified document. He had not passed the information to Fleischer with the intention of leaking it. Fitzgerald’s opening argument made it seem that Bartlett was involved in a leak orchestrated by Fleischer. But Bartlett’s participation in the affair–if Fleischer was speaking accurately–was accidental. Libby’s, though, was not, according to Fleischer.
There was one big wrinkle in the Fleischer account. Call it the Dickerson Doubt. Dickerson has written that Fleischer did not tell him anything about Valerie Wilson. Describing his conversation with Fleischer, Dickerson in 2006 noted in Slate,
Some low-level person at the CIA was responsible for the mission. I was told I should go ask the CIA who sent Wilson.
In this article, Dickerson did not identify this official as Fleischer, but Hubris reported that Fleischer was his source. Dickerson also noted that an hour after this conversation another senior administration official–in this instance, Bartlett–told him essentially the same thing:
This official also pointed out a few times that Wilson had been sent by a low-level CIA employee and encouraged me to follow that angle. I thought I got the point: He’d been sent by someone around the rank of deputy assistant undersecretary or janitor.
Dickerson’s account flat-out contradicts Fleischer’s confession. (Gregory has not commented on this episode.) What does that mean?
The defense could have used this contradiction to try to impeach Fleischer’s credibility. If Fleischer falsely remembers leaking, then maybe he’s also wrong about what happened during his lunch with Libby. But Libby’s lawyers want Fleischer to be right about the supposed leak to Dickerson and Gregory. They are building a case–or the innuendo–that Tim Russert was wrong when he told Fitzgerald’s grand jury that he knew nothing about Valerie Wilson when he spoke to Libby (and could not have, as Libby has claimed, told Libby anything about Wilson’s wife). Libby’s attorneys have said that Russert may have had knowledge about Valerie Wilson and her CIA position because he may had heard about it from colleagues at NBC News, such as David Gregory.
It’s complicated, but the argument goes like this: Fleischer leaked to Gregory and Dickerson; Gregory told Russert; and Russert told Libby that reporters were hearing that Wilson’s wife was CIA. (There’s a side benefit to this theory: Dickerson worked with Matt Cooper at Time. Perhaps Dickerson told Cooper about Valerie Wilson, and then Cooper, rather than receiving information on her from Libby, actually passed information to Libby.) But there’s at least one problem for the defense. In the indictment of Libby, Fitzgerald noted that the Russert-Libby phone call happened on July 10, 2003. Yet Fleischer’s (real or not) leak to Gregory (and Dickerson) occurred on July 11, 2003. To make this part of the defense work, Libby’s lawyers have to show–or suggest–the Libby-Russert call occurred at a later time than Fitzgerald has placed it.
In any event, the defense was in a curious position. If it cited Dickerson’s account to raise questions about Fleischer’s memory, including his recollection of the lunch with Libby, it would have lost the (fanciful) Libby-to-Fleischer-to-Gregory-to-Russert-to-Libby daisy chain. As for what really happened in Uganda, Dickerson has the edge in credibility. First, he’s not a former White House press secretary. More important, it’s hard to imagine that both Dickerson and Gregory would not have reported new information about the Wilson trip, which was a piping hot story that week. As Dickerson has noted previously, when he subsequently learned that Wilson’s wife was a CIA officer, he considered that noteworthy. (He heard this from Cooper, who had gotten a leak from White House aide Karl Rove.) Both he and Cooper then tried to get this information into Time‘s cover story on the scandal. Their editors, though, left this fact out–which led Cooper and Dickerson to file a story on the newsmagazine’s website a few days later.
Dickerson is an inconvenient witness for both sides. The prosecution doesn’t want him on the stand. He could impeach the credibility of its best witness so far. And the defense wants him out of the picture. He could undercut its attempt to rattle Russert. He appears to have a get-out-of-the-witness-box-free card. And the mystery of Fleischer’s purported leak remains.
Why would Fleischer make up a leak that didn’t happen? Did he seek immunity to cover an act that he didn’t commit? What’s a reporter covering this case–or a reader of the coverage–to make of this? A cascade of theories, no doubt, will pour forth. But this case has had memory issues. And Libby’s lawyers will certainly be hammering that larger point–ad nauseum–in the weeks to come.
Other developments? Yes, there were some. When Ted Wells, a Libby attorney, cross-examined Cathie Martin, Cheney’s former public affairs chief, he noted that none of the four sets of talking points created by Cheney’s office regarding Wilson’s charges mentioned Wilson’s wife. Wells’ point: this was not a matter of much concern for Cheney or Libby. But under questioning from Fitzgerald, Martin conceded that while Libby was in her loop, she was not in his–and that she was unaware of all of Libby’s activities regarding the effort to counter Wilson. At the end of her testimony, she looked disappointed.
Later in the day, after Fleischer was done, David Addington, Cheney’s current chief of staff, was called as a witness by the prosecution. He testified that sometime during the week after Wilson published his op-ed, Libby and he had a conversation in Libby’s small office outside Cheney’s West Wing suite. Libby, according to Addington, asked Addington, who used to work at the CIA, what paperwork would exist if a CIA officer sent a spouse on a mission. No names were mentioned, but Addington figured the query was related to the Wilson trip, and he explained to Libby how records are kept at the CIA. Addington told him that there ought to be paperwork documenting such a trip. He also testified that at one point in this conversation Libby “extended his hands out and pushed them down” to indicate that Addington should keep his voice low. Here was yet another indication that Libby had Joe and Valerie Wilson on his mind.
At the end of the day, the prosecution had fared better than the defense. Fleischer presented a puzzle. But he also was a straightforward witness regarding the lunch. Cathie Martin, who testified last week that she had told Libby and Cheney about Valerie Wilson, acknowledged that there was anti-Wilson activity going on in Cheney-land above her paygrade and that Libby was involved in this. And Addington’s brief account depicted a Libby who was gathering information on Valerie Wilson in a suspiciously quiet manner. But the witnesses did provide plenty of information that Libby’s legal team can use to support a variety of competing narratives, with the aim of confusing jurors. There remains a lot for the jury to sort out–and the prosecution’s presentation is only half finished. Then comes the defense.
DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.