By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Vice President Cheney is willing to testify in the perjury and obstruction-of-justice trial of his former chief of staff that is scheduled to begin next month, according to defense lawyers and sources familiar with his plans.
Lawyers for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former top aide, told a federal judge yesterday that the defense plans to call the vice president and expects him to cooperate. That would make Cheney the first sitting vice president to testify in a criminal case, presidential historians and legal experts said.
The defense is hoping the vice president can help rebut charges that his most trusted aide intentionally lied to agents and a grand jury investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.
Cheney's role in the case is a pivotal one, for both the defense and the prosecution. He was a witness to, and participant in, how the administration reacted in the spring and summer of 2003, when Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly accused the administration of twisting intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
In July 2003, Plame's name and covert status were first revealed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak. He attributed the information to anonymous administration officials. Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald began investigating in December 2003 whether administration officials illegally provided information about Plame to the press as retribution.
Wilson asserted that he led a CIA mission that found no evidence Iraq was attempting to acquire material for nuclear weapons.
Fitzgerald has said his investigation found that Cheney was the person who first told Libby about Plame's CIA job and about her role in suggesting her husband for the mission. Cheney told Libby he could release some of the information to rebut Wilson's assertions that the vice president had ordered the mission, according to Libby's testimony.
Libby was indicted in October 2005, on five counts of committing perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice during the investigation. He is accused of lying when he said he learned about Plame's CIA role from NBC reporter Tim Russert in July 2003, and lying to conceal that he told at least two journalists -- former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and former Time reporter Matthew Cooper -- about Plame's job.
Libby contends he was so busy with pressing national security issues that he forgot details of those conversations and misspoke about them to investigators and to the grand jury. Cheney could help the defense establish that Libby was indeed at the center of national security crises.
Fitzgerald said in court yesterday that he does not plan to call Cheney as a witness, but would now have a chance to cross-examine him. The prosecutor has argued in court filings that in the spring and summer of 2003 Libby and Cheney were intensely focused on rebutting Wilson's claims.
Presidential historians and legal experts said they were unaware of a sitting vice president testifying at a criminal trial. Several presidents have given testimony in court cases, including Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford.
Ohio State University law professor Peter Shane said Cheney's appearance is also unusual because of his aggressive efforts in other matters to protect the executive office from being forced to disclose details of its deliberative process or inner workings. Cheney waged a lengthy legal battle to avoid having to release information about energy executives and others who participated in a task force he created to help shape the administration's energy policy.
Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's spokeswoman, said that "historians are entitled to their opinions, but the vice president has said from the very beginning that we're cooperating in this matter and we will continue to do so."