As jurors in the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby spent Tuesday listening to audiotapes of Libby’s two appearances in 2004 before the grand jury investigating the CIA leak, a possible killer moment occurred. It came when Libby, describing a conversation he had with reporter Matt Cooper, then of Time, on July 12, 2003 (two days before Valerie Wilson was outed as a CIA officer in a Robert Novak column), told the grand jury:
And I said [to Cooper], reporters are telling us that [former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife works at the CIA], I don’t know if it’s true. I was careful about that because among other things, I wanted to be clear I didn’t know Mr. Wilson. I don’t know – I think I said, I don’t know if he has a wife, but this is what we’re hearing.
I don’t know if he has a wife–that’s what the man said under oath.
By the time the jurors heard this part of the tape, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had presented as witnesses five past or present Bush administration officials and one journalist who each testified that he or she discussed Wilson’s wife with Libby prior to Libby’s phone call with Cooper. An additional witness–Vice President Dick Cheney’s current chief of staff, David Addington–testified that Libby had asked him about the paperwork the CIA would keep if an officer had sent a spouse on a trip. And a Libby note from early June 2003, introduced as evidence by both the prosecution and the defense, indicates that Cheney told Libby, his chief of staff at the time, that Wilson’s wife was employed at the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division, a unit in the agency’s clandestine operations directorate.
Yet now jurors could hear Libby claiming to the grand jury that at the time of the Libby-Cooper phone call–six days after Joseph Wilson had published an op-ed saying he had inside information showing the White House and Cheney’s office had twisted the prewar intelligence–he (Libby) had no idea that Wilson was married, let alone that he knew the missus was a CIA employee.
Could Libby really have been telling the truth?
By playing the audiotapes, Fitzgerald placed the jurors in the position he was in when he grilled Libby before the grand jury. At that point, he already had testimony from witnesses who maintained they had told Libby or heard from him about Wilson’s wife prior to the leak. Yet when Libby appeared before the grand jury, he told a convoluted tale. In essence, he claimed that he had been struck by amnesia–a rather selective case of amnesia.
Before the grand jury, Libby conceded that sometime before June 12, 2003, Cheney told him that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. (This happened during a period when Libby and Cheney were concerned about a Washington Post reporter who was looking into a story about an unnamed former envoy who had gone to Niger for the CIA and returned with information that the ex-envoy believed disproved part of the administration’s case for war.) But Libby claimed that he had totally–and he meant totally–forgotten all about the wife when on July 10 or 11, 2003, Meet the Press host Tim Russert told him that “all the reporters” knew that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. Before the grand jury, Libby repeatedly said he was “surprised” by the information he received from Russert. He said he felt he was learning it “anew” and was “taken aback.” He was not unsure on this point: “I have a specific recollection I was surprised.”
Libby was saying not that the Russert conversation had reminded him of what he had known only weeks earlier, but that he had so entirely forgotten what his boss had told him about Valerie Wilson that this was a complete news flash to him. Libby then insisted that he only passed the gossip he had received from Russert to other reporters (such as Cooper), telling them that he (Libby) knew nothing certain about Wilson’s wife. Not that Wilson even had a wife.
It was some tale. This is how Libby described his phone call with Russert to the grand jurors:
And then [Russert] said, you know, did you know that this–excuse me, did you know that Ambassador Wilson’s wife works at the CIA? And I was a little taken aback by that. I remember being taken aback by it. And I said–he may have said a little more but that was–he said that. And I said, no, I don’t know that. And I said, no, I don’t know that intentionally because I didn’t want him to take anything I was saying as in any way confirming what he said, because at that point in time I did not recall that I had ever known, and I thought this is something that he was telling me that I was first learning. And so I said, no, I don’t know that because I want to be very careful not to confirm it for him, so that he didn’t take my statement as confirmation for him.
Russert has denied telling Libby any such thing and has said that he knew nothing about Wilson’s wife at the time of his conversation with Libby. And during Libby’s grand jury appearances, Fitzgerald repeatedly asked Libby if Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, senior CIA official Robert Grenier, and Cheney aide Cathie Martin had told him, prior to this conversation with Russert, that Wilson’s wife was employed at the CIA. Libby said he did not recall any of these discussions. Fitzgerald asked him if he had discussed Wilson’s wife and her CIA tie with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer days before the Russert call. Again, Libby said he could not remember doing so. The trial jurors listened to all this, knowing that each of these people had testified at the trial that they did talk to Libby about Wilson’s wife before he supposedly learned it “anew.” (During his second grand jury appearance, Libby asked to clarify his previous testimony and said that he now recalled having spoken to Grossman about Wilson as “a joke” and that he had ribbed Grossman because an ex-ambassador was leaking information harmful to the administration. He still claimed he had no recollection of Grossman telling him anything about Wilson’s wife. A cynical interpretation would be that Libby–or his lawyer–decided it was better to have a difference with Grossman about what was said than a contradiction over whether they had ever talked about the Wilson mission.)
In his grand jury testimony, there were other hard-to-swallow parts. Libby acknowledged that after Wilson’s op-ed came out, he discussed the Wilson controversy with Cheney, who was “upset” by the article. But Libby claimed that he and Cheney (who had written a note about Wilson’s wife on his copy of the op-ed) had not talked about Wilson’s wife until weeks later. In other words, right after the op-ed was published, Cheney and Libby had talked about various aspects of the Wilson case except Wilson’s wife.
Libby’s grand jury testimony yielded some interesting tidbits. Fitzgerald asked him about phone records indicating that Novak had called him days before he published his column outing Valerie Wilson. Yet Libby said he had no memory of speaking to Novak at that time. What happened? The jury–and the public–may never find out. But the jury did learn who was one of Cheney’s favorite reporters: Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times. Explaining why he chose to pass information from the top-secret National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD to Miller, Libby told the grand jury that he considered Miller (whose prewar reporting on Iraq WMDs was exaggerated) “a serious reporter who cares about the substance of the issues.” And Libby testified that before he leaked the NIE excerpts to Miller on July 8, 2003, he told Cheney that he had picked Miller to be the recipient of this leak. Presumably, Cheney considered her a suitable conduit, for he did not stop his aide. (Cheney had arranged for President Bush to declassify parts of the NIE so Libby could selectively leak it to a reporter as part of the administration’s effort to beat back the mounting criticism that the White House had hyped the prewar case for war.)
Before the tapes were played, there was a legal tussle in the court concerning the defense team’s desire to call New York Times reporter David Sanger as a witness. Libby met with Sanger on July 2, 2003, and apparently Libby said nothing to Sanger about Wilson’s wife. The defense wants to point to this conversation to show that Libby was not actively spreading information about Wilson’s wife. A Times lawyer argued that if Sanger were forced to testify, his ability to deal with confidential sources would be hampered. Judge Reggie Walton shot down Sanger’s argument and said the reporter would have to appear as a witness for the defense. (Will Sanger, like Miller did, defy a court order and face prison time?) As the defense and the Times tangled, Fitzgerald noted that during his July 2 conversation with Sanger, Libby shared information about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that was still classified. The implication: Libby was leaking before Cheney gave him permission to do so.
On Wednesday, the jury is scheduled to hear the final two and a half hours of Libby’s grand jury testimony. So far the tapes are not favorable for Libby. His story before the grand jury was neither clean nor clear. And on the audiotape, when he made a remark that would later be contradicted by trial witnesses he often paused or dropped the volume of his voice. Are the jurors picking up on that? There’s no telling. But his grand jury testimony–which got Libby into his current jam–is not a strong advertisement for the former vice presidential chief of staff. Libby’s defense team has filed a motion suggesting Libby may not testify in his own defense. But after hearing Libby present confusing (if not untenable) explanations of his actions to the grand jury, the trial jurors may well want (and expect) to hear Libby clear things up on the witness stand. That is, if he can.
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.