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.