By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
The trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff opened yesterday with defense lawyers carefully scrutinizing potential jurors for strong opinions about the Bush administration, the war in Iraq and the fallibility of human memory.
The questioning signaled the key issues in the case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who is accused of lying to investigators and a grand jury during the investigation of the leak of a CIA officer's identity to the media in 2003. The prosecution alleges that Libby deliberately misled FBI agents and a grand jury about several conversations he had with journalists then. Defense lawyers contend their client was too busy to recall the details of those conversations.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, who is presiding over the trial, yesterday dismissed three of the nine potential jurors interviewed. Two were released after expressing strong feelings about the Bush administration.
"I am completely without objectivity," said a woman in her 30s, who was dressed in tailored brown trousers and a sweater. "There is nothing they could say or do that would make me think anything positive." Walton excused her immediately. Libby turned to watch her walk out of court.
Libby, the most senior Bush administration official to face a criminal trial, is charged with five felony counts. CIA operative Valerie Plame's name and undercover role were revealed in a syndicated column days after her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly accused President Bush of twisting information Wilson had gathered on a CIA-sponsored mission to investigate Iraq's efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program. Libby, 56, is not accused of the leak itself.
The trial is likely to feature members of the government and the media elite as witnesses, including Cheney, NBC's Tim Russert and Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward. It will center, in part, on administration efforts in the spring of 2003 to defend the decision to go to war in Iraq.
The difficulty of finding 12 jurors and four alternates became apparent as jury selection began. Walton started by asking prospective jurors 38 pre-screening questions, telling them the inquiry would help determine whether they had "certain sympathies or prejudices" that could interfere with their responsibility to be impartial.
Presaging a key element of the defense, jurors were asked several questions about the reliability of memory. In one question that mirrors a dispute in the case, the judge asked jurors if they thought it was impossible for a person to honestly believe he or she was told some information by one person just weeks or months after learning that same information from a completely different person. Libby told FBI agents that he learned about Plame's identity from Russert in July, and forgot that Cheney had told him about her a month earlier.
But in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10 to 1, one of the most sensitive questions for the defense was No. 2: "Do any of you have feelings or opinions about the Bush administration or any of its policies or actions, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to give a former member of the Bush administration a fair trial?"
The judge dismissed a young man in his 20s after he told lawyers and the judge: "I don't have the highest opinion" of the vice president.
A female jury candidate said she believed she could fairly weigh Libby's guilt or innocence but described having a cousin in Iraq and not supporting the president's policy of keeping troops there for extended tours of duty.
"I thought to myself, 'Why would he be so cold, not let the troops come home? . . . They're tired,' " she said. "I also think Bush knows this. He just wants the war." Defense attorneys Theodore V. Wells Jr. and William Jeffress Jr. sought to dismiss the woman, but the judge kept her in the prospective pool.
A woman who said she was a soprano opera singer and mother of three said she believed the American public had not gotten the real justification for going to war in Iraq but did not think Bush had intentionally misled the nation. "Somewhere in there, there seems to be a credibility gap," she said. "Who [did it]? I don't know."