After two weeks of listening to a series of prosecution witnesses in the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the jurors finally got to hear the defendant. He didn’t take the stand. That may happen later. On Monday, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald began playing eight hours of audio tapes of Libby’s two appearances before the grand jury that investigated the CIA leak case.
The tapes did not contain much information not previously disclosed. Fitzgerald had picked Libby’s grand jury testimony clean for his indictment and pretrial submissions. But the airing of the tapes was a visceral moment in a trial that has sometimes bogged down in legal minutia. Jurors could hear Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff utter the words that Fitzgerald has branded lies. They could listen to the pauses, to the moments when Libby’s voice became quiet, to the hesitation that occurred during some of his answers–were any of these a tell?–and seek tangible and intangible indications of whether Libby indeed made false statements to prevent himself (and perhaps the vice president) from becoming entangled in a criminal prosecution.
In one of the first questions at the March 5, 2004 grand jury session, Fitzgerald asked Libby to explain how he had received his nickname “Scooter.” Libby replied with a small joke: “Are we classified in here? It’s–my family is from the South and it’s less uncommon than it is up here.” That was all he said–he didn’t answer the question. Then Fitzgerald bore down on Libby, grilling him on what he had known about the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and when he had known it.
There were several key exchanges in the first 100 minutes played before the court recessed for the day. (The tapes and the transcripts will be released to the media and the public–over the objection of Libby’s defense team–after all the tapes are played in court.) In front of the grand jury, Fitzgerald repeatedly asked Libby if in June 2003 he had discussed Wilson’s wife and her CIA employment with either Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman or CIA senior official Robert Grenier. (At that point, Wilson’s now infamous trip to Niger–during which he concluded the allegation that Iraq had been seeking uranium in Niger was bunk–had been cited in the media without Wilson being named.) Libby repeatedly told Fitzgerald that he had not spoken with either man about Wilson’s wife. Yet both Grossman and Grenier have testified in this trial that Libby demanded information from them about the Wilson mission and that they informed him the ambassador’s wife was a CIA employee.
Over and over, Libby told the grand jury he could not remember any such conversations with Grossman or Grenier. “Is that something you would remember?” Fitzgerald asked. “I just don’t recall the conversation,” Libby replied, in a voice that dropped in volume.
This has been a critical point for Libby. His story is that at the time of the leak that outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer on July 14, 2003, he possessed no official or classified information about her. He has claimed that he had forgotten–totally–the one conversation he had with Cheney about her in early June 2003, and he has said that in July 2003 he had heard from reporters–mainly Tim Russert of Meet the Press–that there were rumors that Wilson’s wife was CIA. He has claimed it was as if he was learning about Valerie Wilson for the first time. Libby, according to his own account, then merely shared these rumors with other reporters.
Before the grand jury, Libby acknowledged that he had discussed Wilson’s wife with his boss sometime before June 12, as Libby was preparing to speak with Walter Pincus, a Washington Post reporter looking to do a piece on the trip of a then-unnamed former ambassador (which had been reported in a column by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times a month earlier). The vice president told Libby that he had obtained information on this ex-diplomat and mentioned that the former ambassador’s wife worked at the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division, a unit within the agency’s clandestine directorate. (Cheney and Libby were much concerned about the Wilson trip, for they believed the initial story about it suggested they had directly sent Wilson to Africa–which they had not–and that they had subsequently deliberately ignored information indicating that part of the administration’s case for war was false.)
Questioning Libby about this conversation with Cheney, Fitzgerald asked if anything had been different in Cheney’s tone of voice when he referred to the wife’s CIA connection. The remark, Libby said, was a “little bit of a curiosity sort of thing.” Was there any negative connotation? Fitzgerald inquired. “I wouldn’t say negative,” Libby replied. “It was a fact–not everybody’s wife works there.”
In Libby’s telling, the vice president was briefing him about what the vice president had learned about Wilson’s trip–a month before the Wilson imbroglio would become a public scandal–and the CIA link was no more than an oddity, even though everything else Cheney had learned about the trip was deemed important by him and Libby. “What did you think of that fact?” Fitzgerald asked, referring to the wife’s CIA employment. Libby replied that he saw it as nothing but a “curiosity” that “might mean nothing, might mean something, I don’t know.”
That’s Libby’s story: the wife was a trivial matter; thus, he had no reason to lie about what he knew to the grand jury. Other elements of the Wilson trip–such as the fact that the vice president received no direct briefing on its results–were significant, but not this “curiosity.” Libby has maintained that he discussed it with no one at State or the CIA. And then he forgot what Cheney had told him about the wife.
It’s a hard story to believe–or follow–especially after several past and present Bush administration officials have testified at the trial that Libby was in the know about Valerie Wilson. On Tuesday, the jury will hear another six hours of Libby’s grand jury testimony. It will be confusing and convoluted at times. And the jurors will be listening to what they can hear between the lines.
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.