Libby Loses a Round in Court
Saturday, February 25, 2006
Vice President Cheney's former top aide is not entitled to know the identity of an anonymous administration official who revealed information about CIA operative Valerie Plame to two journalists, a federal judge ruled in a hearing yesterday.
To defend himself against criminal charges, however, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby does have the right to copies of all the classified notes he took as Cheney's chief of staff from spring 2003 to spring 2004, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said. Libby sought the notes to refresh his memory about matters he was handling while discussing Plame with reporters and when questioned by investigators about those conversations.
Libby, 55, was indicted in October on charges of committing perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice during the investigation into whether administration officials knowingly disclosed Plame's identity to reporters. Libby is accused of lying when he said he first learned about Plame's CIA role from NBC reporter Tim Russert in July 2003, and lying to conceal that he told at least two reporters about Plame's job at the agency.
Walton set a schedule under which Libby's lawyers would lay out in late April which reporters they want to question about knowledge they had of Plame in the spring and summer of 2003. The judge also prepared for news organizations to fight subpoenas that would press their reporters to discuss confidential sources, a battle that could delay Libby's trial, set for January 2007.
Walton's ruling on releasing Libby's notes will probably mean months of additional work for a team headed by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald. It has been working for the past three months with at least five federal agencies to review and, in some cases, declassify more than 11,000 pages of records so they can be turned over to Libby's defense team.
But Walton's decision to continue to protect the anonymity of one administration official, whom Libby's attorneys described as a confidential source about Plame for two reporters, one of them apparently Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, is a blow to Libby's case. Defense attorneys had said they needed to know the official's identity and the details of his conversations with the two journalists to show that Libby was not lying when he testified that many reporters knew about Plame's identity.
But Walton said the source's identity is not relevant, and there is no reason to sully the source's reputation because the person faces no charges.
The official's identity has been the subject of intense speculation since syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak published Plame's name in July 2003 -- eight days after her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, accused the administration of twisting intelligence to justify going to war with Iraq.
Defense attorneys in yesterday's hearing described the official as someone who did not work at the White House and was the source for two reporters. They said that one of those reporters had revealed in November that he learned about Plame from the official in mid-June 2003.
Woodward came forward in November to reveal that he had learned about Plame's CIA status from an administration official in mid-June 2003. Novak said in a speech in December that President Bush knew the identity of his source, and suggested that the official also was Woodward's source. Sources close to the leak investigation have said that Woodward and Novak received similar information from the same official.
The defense also argued yesterday that it needs copies of the highly classified President's Daily Brief for 275 days in 2003 and 2004 so it can show that Libby was focused on pressing national security matters when questioned about Plame and could have made mistakes. Fitzgerald said it was beyond the pale to expect that the White House would release nearly a year's worth of one of its most sensitive intelligence documents.
"It would be a terrible mistake and derail the case," Fitzgerald said.
Walton said he needed more information before deciding, but tended to agree.
"Isn't it certain, if I order this, it will sabotage the [government's] ability to prosecute this case?" he asked defense lawyers. "I would expect the White House is never going to agree to release these documents. I've heard the vice president -- his boss -- call these the family jewels."