At Libby Trial, Power Players Face Uncomfortable Spotlight
Monday, January 15, 2007
When Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff goes on trial Tuesday on charges of lying about the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity, members of Washington's government and media elite will be answering some embarrassing questions as well.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's case will put on display the secret strategizing of an administration that cherry-picked information to justify war in Iraq and reporters who traded freely in gossip and protected their own interests as they worked on one of the big Washington stories of 2003.
The estimated six-week trial will pit current and former Bush administration officials against one another and, if Cheney is called as expected, will mark the first time that a sitting vice president has testified in a criminal case. It also will force the media into painful territory, with as many as 10 journalists called to testify for or against an official who was, for some of them, a confidential source.
Besides Cheney, the trial is likely to feature government and media luminaries including NBC's Tim Russert, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, columnist Robert D. Novak and Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward.
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity became a popular spectator sport in Washington in the summer of 2004, when reporters were first ordered under threat of jail to reveal their anonymous sources in the administration. In October 2005, Libby was indicted on charges of perjuring himself before a grand jury, making false statements to investigators and obstruction of justice (though he was not one of the leakers to Novak, who first disclosed Plame's identity).
U.S. v. Libby boils down to two drastically different versions of the same events in the spring and summer of 2003. The government alleges that Libby was involved in a concerted White House effort to discredit Plame's husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had publicly accused the Bush administration of twisting information he provided on Iraq's nuclear weapons program. Wilson led a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger a year earlier and found no grounds for claims that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium there.
Eight days after Wilson went public with his claims, Plame's identity as a CIA officer appeared in Novak's column.
The defense says that neither Libby nor the White House sought to retaliate against Wilson and that Libby misspoke to investigators looking into the disclosure because he was overwhelmed by a crush of national security and other matters. He has said he had no motive to lie about the details or timing of conversations he had with reporters.
The case has largely played out in below-the-radar court hearings as prosecutors and defense lawyers have mapped the boundaries of the trial. Despite speculation at cocktail parties and in law-firm lunchrooms that Bush would pardon Libby to avoid the spectacle of a trial, the date has arrived.
Presiding U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton and lawyers for both sides will begin selecting 12 jurors along with alternates Tuesday. It is not expected to be an easy task, given the heavy publicity and the involvement of two institutions -- the government and the news media -- low in the public's esteem. Preparing for strong feelings from some D.C. residents, Walton has assembled 100 prospective jurors and has a pool of 100 more standing by.
Walton has also girded for intense media coverage, last week issuing unusually strict orders that bar attorneys from commenting publicly during the trial.
Fitzgerald's probe focused on a tense time in Washington, starting in May 2003, when the administration sought to defend its invasion of Iraq even as U.S. troops failed to find weapons of mass destruction, which the administration had cited as one of the main reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein. That month, reporters began writing about anonymous accusations from Wilson that Bush had sold the war to the American public using intelligence Wilson had found to be groundless. Wilson went public with his accusations during the first week of July.