By Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was "put through the meat grinder" by the White House shortly after the Iraq war began, scapegoated to conceal the fact that Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, helped disclose an undercover CIA officer's identity, a defense attorney contended yesterday as Libby's perjury trial began.
The lawyer, Theodore V. Wells Jr., and Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald agreed that Vice President Cheney ordered Libby, then his chief of staff, to contact reporters early in the summer of 2003 in an effort to rebut criticism that the administration had selectively used intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
According to Wells, the confidential conversations Libby had with several well-known journalists were not intended to spread the identity of Valerie Plame, the covert CIA officer. Instead, Libby's attorney said, he was acting at Cheney's instructions to respond to allegations that the vice president withheld information that would have raised doubts about whether Iraq was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The dramatic opening statements in the first hours of the celebrated trial laid bare fissures deep inside the White House. They came as the prosecution and defense provided the jury crackling portrayals of their opposing theories of the case.
The two sides' accounts exposed jurors to handwritten notes by Cheney, the internal culture of major newsrooms, a tape recording of Libby speaking to grand jurors and a White House under fire as its justification for war was beginning to unravel.
Libby, 56, is accused of five felony charges stemming from a federal investigation into the leak of Plame's identity to the media. Libby is not charged with the leak itself, nor is anyone else. He faces two counts of making false statements to FBI agents, two counts of perjuring himself before a grand jury and one count of obstructing the investigation, and he has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
"How could we reach a point where the chief of staff for the vice president was repeatedly lying to federal investigators?" Fitzgerald asked jurors rhetorically. "That's what this case is all about."
During an hour-long opening statement that started the trial, the prosecutor painted for the jury what he called "a firestorm" inside the White House on the final day of the July 4, 2003, holiday weekend, when an op-ed article by Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, attacked the administration. Wilson, who had been sent to Niger by the CIA to determine whether Iraq was seeking uranium for its nuclear weapons program, said the president and his aides "may have twisted the intelligence" concerning whether Iraq was seeking weapons of mass destruction.
Libby told investigators that at one point he was surprised to learn from NBC's Tim Russert in July 2003 that Wilson was married to Plame. But Fitzgerald contended that Libby, at Cheney's direction, had been actively telling people about Wilson at the same time.
He said Libby's claim to a grand jury that he simply had forgotten what he knew was implausible, because he had passed on Plame's name to reporters and then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer days before speaking with Russert.
"You can't learn something startling on Thursday that you're giving out Monday and Tuesday of the same week," Fitzgerald said. "Day after day after day after day, he focused on this controversy."
Wells, the defense attorney, countered that "this is a weak, paper-thin, circumstantial evidence case about he-said, she-said."
Wells asserted that the vice president's former right-hand man gave investigators his "good-faith recollection" and that any mistakes in his memory were innocent. He also contended that the journalists and administration officials who are to testify during the trial also have imperfect memories. He said that Libby did not aggressively push the Wilson story, did not know that Plame worked in a covert role and had no motive to lie to investigators.
According to Wells, when the federal investigation of the leak began in the fall of 2003, Libby was not worried about his job, but was "concerned about . . . being scapegoated." Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary at the time, said publicly that Rove was not responsible for any leaks, Wells said, but did not say the same about Libby.
Libby, Wells said, told Cheney he feared "people in the White House are trying to set me up." Wells then showed the jury the text of a note Cheney had jotted that said: "Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."
Wells said: "That one person was Karl Rove. He was viewed as a political genius. . . . He had to be protected. The person who was to be sacrificed was Scooter Libby." According to Wells, the vice president tried to persuade White House colleagues to publicly clear Libby's name as the source of the leak.
Plame's name first appeared in a July 14 column by Robert D. Novak. Rove and Richard L. Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, have acknowledged being Novak's sources for the story.
Wells did not make it clear how the White House's handling of Libby's role influenced what he later told the FBI and grand jury. But the attorney said the "meat grinder" Libby was put through meant he took on the extra task of having brief conversations with reporters while carrying out his "day job" dealing with crucial national security matters.
Asked about the defense's portrayal, White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said yesterday: "We are not commenting on an ongoing criminal matter."
Both sides yesterday provided small pieces of new information about the events leading to Libby's indictment.
Fitzgerald disclosed, for instance, that Libby had underlined his own copy of Wilson's op-ed piece. Fitzgerald also identified a CIA employee Libby asked about Wilson as Craig Schmall.
Late in the afternoon, the prosecution's first witness, Marc Grossman, a former undersecretary of state, testified that Libby had asked him in late May 2003 to look into Wilson's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger to investigate the uranium claim. Grossman said he spoke to Wilson and learned that his wife worked at the CIA and had appeared to help arrange the trip.
"I thought the whole business was of less than zero importance," Grossman testified. "I thought the wife was an interesting tidbit, though."