“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.