Scooter Libby didn’t tell Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. Libby didn’t tell Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that she was employed at the CIA. Libby didn’t tell New York Times reporter David Sanger the envoy’s wife was CIA. Libby didn’t tell Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post anything about her. And he said nothing to rightwing columnist Robert Novak about the woman.
That’s how the defense in the perjury trial of I. Lewis” Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, began its case on Monday. The aim was to show that Libby was not willy-nilly spreading information to reporters about Valerie Wilson and her CIA employment in the weeks before she was outed as a CIA officer by Novak’s July 14, 2003 column. Libby stands accused of having lied to a grand jury and the FBI when he told both that he had not passed official information regarding Valerie Wilson to reporter Judith Miller, then of The New York Times (during conversations on June 23, July 8 and July 12, 2003) and correspondent Matt Cooper, then of Time (during a phone call on July 12, 2003). With the testimony of the journalists who appeared on Monday, Libby’s lawyers will be able to argue to the jurors that if Libby was purposefully leaking information on Valerie Wilson, he sure let plenty of opportunities pass him by.
The defense also elicited testimony from two reporters who each said he had been told about Wilson’s wife (before the Novak leak) by an administration official other than Libby. Pincus testified that on July 12 Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, said to him that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and had sent her husband on a boondoggle. (Pincus had previously disclosed that an administration source made such a remark to him without identifying the source.) And Woodward testified that on June 13 he met with then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who told him that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and had been involved with the trip Joseph Wilson had taken to Niger for the CIA to check out the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium there. (The day before Woodward saw Armitage, Pincus had reported on the trip in the Post without naming Wilson).
Libby’s lawyers merged these two key points–Libby had not leaked to these reporters while other officials had leaked–and composed a timeline in front of the jury that listed Libby’s conversations with Pincus, Woodward, Sanger, Kessler, and Novak and Armitage’s conversations with Woodward and Novak and Fleischer’s with Pincus. The Libby conversations were noted in black ink. (Black meant no mention of WIlson’s wife). The other three were in red. (Red meant Wilson’s wife was mentioned.) Voila! The only conversations on the chart involving Valerie Wilson were those between reporters and Bush administration officials besides Libby.
Libby is in legal trouble because in 2003 and 2004 he told the FBI and the grand jury investigating the CIA leak that when he discussed Wilson’s wife with Cooper and Miller, he was merely passing along gossip he had picked up from Meet the Press host Tim Russert–not official information gathered from government sources. Fitzgerald has presented witnesses who have testified that Libby did seek and obtain classified information on Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment from Cheney and CIA and State Department officials and then leaked it to Miller and Cooper.
During the prosecution’s case, Libby’s attorneys attempted to impeach the credibility of these witnesses–and suggested several conspiracy theories that they have yet to support with evidence. Now that it’s their turn, Libby’s lawyers began with a contextual argument: look at all the times he didn’t leak. But in Washington not every leak is an equal opportunity leak handed out to all comers. A leak often can be selective. During his grand jury testimony–which was played for the trial jurors–Libby explained how he had been tasked by Cheney (with George W. Bush’s approval) to leak selectively to Miller excerpts from the classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (which the White House believed supported its case for war). Libby also told the grand jurors how he worked with then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to leak portions of the NIE to The Wall Street Journal–not to every reporter with whom he would come into contact.
Libby’s I-didn’t-leak-to-these-other-reporters argument has additional problems. When he didn’t leak to Pincus, Woodward, and Sanger, the Wilson matter was not yet a firestorm. And some of these conversations did not concern the Wilson affair. Sanger testified that he had contacted Libby regarding Libby’s role in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations, during which Powell laid out a case for war based on false information. Is it fair to say your discussion with Libby did not involve allegations about Joseph Wilson? Fitzgerald asked Sanger. “That’s fair to say,” the reporter replied. And during the entire Sanger-Libby interview, Fitzgerald noted, Cathie Martin, Cheyenne’s top press aide, was in the room. The prosecutor was suggesting it would be unlikely for Libby to leak classified information about Valerie Wilson to a reporter chasing another story while a press aide was watching. And Glenn Kessler of the Post testified that his phone conversation with Libby came about because he was helping a colleague at the paper gather answers to questions related to postwar planning. Kessler’s phone call with Libby did not cover the Wilson trip.
Some of the testimony from the reporters did not enhance Libby’s credibility. According to Pincus, Libby told him that Wilson’s trip to Niger had been sparked by a question about the Niger allegation raised by an aide to the vice president. But the CIA had dispatched Wilson to Africa after Cheney himself asked about the NIger allegation. In talking to Pincus, Libby was dissembling to keep the boss out of the picture.
When Novak testified, he noted that on July 8, 2003, shortly after Armitage told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA, he (Novak) called Libby–and Novak’s phone records support this. Libby returned the call that day or the next, according to Novak, and the two discussed the ongoing controversy concerning Bush’s use of the Niger allegation in his 2003 State of the Union trip. Novak told the court that he might have asked Libby about Wilson’s wife during this conversation but had no recollection of doing so. Yet during his grand jury testimony, Libby denied talking to Novak in this period. Libby claimed he had not had any conversation with Novak at “any time near” Novak’s July 14, 2003 leak column–noting he had spoken to Novak “maybe a year and a half” before that article and then a “week and a half or so” after the column came out. Why then does Novak clearly recall a conversation with Libby at that time? This conflict in recollection was not addressed by the prosecution and the defense.
Through the day, the testimony of the notable journalists yielded several news nuggets. Fleischer was revealed to be more of a leaker than previously disclosed. (When he testified as a prosecution witness, Fleischer admitted to leaking to NBC News reporter David Gregory and John Dickerson, then of Time–though Dickerson’s emails from the time show Fleischer did not tell him about Wilson’s wife.) And Novak confirmed that Karl Rove, the Bush administration’s top strategist, was the second source for his column blowing Valerie Wilson’s cover. On the stand, Novak noted that at the time of the leak Rove was a “good source” with whom he spoke to two or three times a week. He said that he and Rove had a “modus operandi” in which Rove would quickly confirm or deny information Novak possessed without Novak “getting into a long dissertation”–and that Rove confirmed the information leaked to Novak by Armitage. Anyone remember the White House vow made by then-press secretary Scott McClellan in fall 2003 that any White House official involved in the leak would be booted out of the Bush administration? Confirming a leak is certainly involvement. Rove, though, still works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Tony Snow, care to comment?)
On the stand, Novak also said that he shared a draft of his leak column three days before it was published with a good friend and Republican lobbyist named Richard Hohlt. (Hohlt has represented BMW, JP Morgan Chase, SBC Communications, the Nuclear Energy Institute, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Northwest Airlines, and other corporate clients.) Novak testified that he had a “vague recollection” that Hohlt that day told the White House that a “very interesting” piece would be coming out. This seemed curious: Novak slipping a column to a GOP lobbyist who then immediately provided a head’s up to the White House. But nothing else about this episode was disclosed.
When Woodward was on the stand, the prosecution introduced as evidence an audio clip of two minutes from Woodward’s taped June 13 interview with Armitage. This was the first time–as far as the public record goes–that a Bush administration official told a reporter that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA. (Woodward did not report the information.) Armitage, according to a transcript of this exchange, showed Woodward a classified memo noting that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA as a WMD analyst. (The memo had it wrong; Valerie Wilson was operations chief for the Joint Task Force on Iraq of the Counterproliferation Division in the agency’s clandestine operations directorate.) “His wife is in the agency….,” said Armitage, who is well-known for his use of salty language. “How about that [expletive deleted].” (The transcript introduced in court redacted Armitage’s salt.)
With Monday’s testimony, the defense took a stab at providing a behavioral alibi for Libby. He didn’t leak here, so he didn’t leak there. It’s unclear what the rest of the defense is going to cover. Libby’s lawyers have said they expect to call Jill Abramson of The New York Times (supposedly to impeach Judith Miller’s earlier testimony) and NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell (supposedly to impeach Russert’s earlier testimony). Libby’s attorney have also mentioned bringing to the stand former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow and John Hannah, Cheney’s current national security adviser. Hannah would presumably testify as to how busy Libby was with national security leaks at the time of the Valerie Wilson leak. His lawyers could then argue that Libby cannot be expected to remember accurately such minor business as the leak.
The defense has not yet declared whether it will call Cheney or Libby as witnesses. And the defense and prosecution have been squabbling over what evidence could be introduced should Libby not testify. Libby’s lawyers began their case with a side issue: what Libby didn’t say to other reporters. They have yet to disclose all that will follow.
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.