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.)