By Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 17, 2005
The revelation that The Washington Post's Bob Woodward may have been the first reporter to learn about CIA operative Valerie Plame could provide a boost to the only person indicted in the leak case: I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Legal experts said Woodward provided two pieces of new information that cast at least a shadow of doubt on the public case against Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, who has been indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
Woodward testified Monday that contrary to Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's public statements, a senior government official -- not Libby -- was the first Bush administration official to tell a reporter about Plame and her role at the CIA. Woodward also said that Libby never mentioned Plame in conversations they had on June 23 and June 27, 2003, about the Iraq war, a time when the indictment alleges Libby was eagerly passing information about Plame to reporters and colleagues.
While neither statement appears to factually change Fitzgerald's contention that Libby lied and impeded the leak investigation, the Libby legal team plans to use Woodward's testimony to try to show that Libby was not obsessed with unmasking Plame and to raise questions about the prosecutor's full understanding of events. Until now, few outside of Libby's legal team have challenged the facts and chronology of Fitzgerald's case.
"I think it's a considerable boost to the defendant's case," said John Moustakas, a former federal prosecutor who has no role in the case. "It casts doubt about whether Fitzgerald knew everything as he charged someone with very serious offenses." Other legal experts agreed.
Moustakas said Woodward also has considerable credibility because he has been granted "unprecedented access" to the inner workings of the Bush White House. "When Woodward says this information was disclosed to me in a nonchalant and casual way -- not as if it was classified -- it helps corroborate Libby's account about himself and about the administration," Moustakas said.
According to the statement Woodward released Tuesday, he did not appear to provide any testimony that goes specifically to the question of whether Libby is guilty of two counts of perjury, two counts of providing false statements and one count of obstructing justice. The indictment outlines what many legal experts describe as a very strong case against Libby, because it shows the former Cheney aide learned about Plame from at least four government sources, including the vice president -- and not a reporter, as he testified before the grand jury.
Randall D. Eliason, former head of the public corruption unit for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District,said he doubts the Woodward account would have much effect on Libby's case, and dismissed such theories as "defense spin."
"Libby was not charged with being the first to talk to a reporter, and that is not part of the indictment," he said. "Whether or not some other officials were talking to Woodward doesn't really tell us anything about the central issue in Libby's case: What was his state of mind and intent when he was talking to the FBI and testifying in the grand jury?" Eliason added: "What this does suggest, though, is that the investigation is still very active. Hard to see how that is good news for [White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl] Rove or for anyone else in the prosecutor's cross hairs."
Since December 2003, Fitzgerald has been probing whether senior Bush administration officials illegally leaked classified information -- Plame's identity as a CIA operative -- to reporters to discredit allegations made by her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Plame's name was revealed in a July 14, 2003, column by Robert D. Novak, eight days after Wilson publicly accused the administration of twisting intelligence to justify the Iraq war. Rove is still under investigation.
Libby's lawyers have asked whether Fitzgerald will correct his statement that Libby was the first administration official to leak information about Plame to a reporter. Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn, declined to comment. But a source close to the probe said there is no reason for the prosecutor to correct the record, because he specifically said at his news conference Oct. 28 that Libby was the "first official known" at that time to have provided such information to a reporter.
Still, the Libby legal team seized on Woodward's testimony, calling it a "bombshell" with the potential to upend Fitzgerald's case. After spending yesterday at the courthouse reviewing documents for the case, Libby emerged with one of this lawyers, Theodore V. Wells Jr., by his side. Wells said Libby is "very grateful to Bob Woodward for coming forward and telling the truth."
A few hours earlier Wells issued a markedly more pointed statement, saying, "Woodward's disclosures are a bombshell to Mr. Fitzgerald's case" that show at least one accusation to be "totally inaccurate." The Libby legal team plans to call a number of journalists to testify in part to show Libby was not determined to blow Plame's cover.
In an interview, Woodward said his testimony was not designed to help or hurt Libby. "My reporting and writing is as neutral as it can be," he said. "Fitzgerald asked me questions . . . I answered them."
Rove's defense team also believes he could benefit tangentially from the Woodward disclosure because it shows other officials were discussing Plame in casual ways and that others have foggy recollections of the period as well, according to a Republican close to Rove.
"It definitely raises the plausibility of Karl Rove's simple and honest lapses of memory, because it shows that there were other people discussing the matter in what Mr. Woodward described as very offhanded, casual way," a source close to Rove said. "Let's face it, we don't all remember every conversation we have about significant issues, much less those about those that are less significant."
Rove is under scrutiny for not initially disclosing his conversation about Plame with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper. Rove's defense is he simply forgot the conversation took place. Sources close to Rove said they expect a decision on whether he will be charged soon.
Staff writer Henri E. Cauvin contributed to this report.