By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 25, 2007
A former high-ranking CIA official testified yesterday that, when Vice President Cheney's agitated chief of staff called him out of the blue in June 2003 to ask what he knew about a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger, he jumped to get answers.
Summoned out of a meeting with the CIA director to take I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's urgent call later that same afternoon, then-Associate Deputy Director Robert Grenier said he relayed all he had learned about former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, the man behind news reports of the trip that had Libby so concerned.
Yes, Wilson had gone on a CIA-sponsored mission to check out intelligence that Iraq was trying to buy uranium for nuclear arms and had concluded that the tip was unfounded, Grenier testified he told Libby. And, he told Libby, it appeared that Wilson's wife, a CIA officer, had suggested Wilson for the trip.
The timing of Grenier's response and Libby's anxiety over Wilson are central to the prosecution's allegation that Libby lied to investigators when he said that he believed he first learned CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity from NBC's Tim Russert a month later. Grenier is one of three government officials to testify, so far, that they held conversations with Libby about Wilson's wife weeks before Libby contends he learned her name.
Libby has pleaded not guilty to five felony counts during the investigation of how Plame's identity was disclosed to the news media. His defense maintains that he got confused about details of conversations with reporters amid the crush of his work on urgent national security issues.
The second day of trial testimony continued to throw back the curtain on a Bush administration beset with rivalries, self-interested alliances and attempts at blame-shifting. Those efforts were particularly intense during the summer of 2003, with U.S. troops in Iraq still unable to find the weapons of mass destruction that President Bush had cited to justify a preemptive war.
Fleshing out the finger-pointing inside the administration is important for both the defense and the prosecution. Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald has argued that Plame was the victim of an internal administration scramble as the vice president sought to discredit Wilson. Fitzgerald has alleged that Libby lied to conceal his and Cheney's efforts, as well as Libby's discussions about Plame with reporters.
Grenier said that Libby was fixated on one set of facts that Grenier relayed. He asked, would the CIA release to the news media the information that Wilson's trip was supposed to answer questions raised not just by Cheney's office, but by the State Department and the Defense Department as well?
Yesterday, defense attorneys sought to raise doubts about several of Libby's former administration colleagues, who are now witnesses for the prosecution, by attempting to show that they had flawed memories of events -- and that they had allegiances or other motives that would bias them against Libby. The defense also asserted that, after a criminal investigation into the leak began in the fall of 2003, the White House tried to protect presidential adviser Karl Rove and seemed willing to sacrifice Libby.
Defense attorney Theodore V. Wells Jr. pressed former undersecretary of state Marc Grossman, the prosecution's first witness, to acknowledge his close friendship with his boss at the time, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, an internal critic of the war and of Libby.
Wells suggested that Grossman had a "fishy" meeting with Armitage just before Grossman was interviewed by the FBI and has given conflicting accounts of events over time.
Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who is expected to testify for the prosecution, also has a motive to help the prosecution, Wells has said. Fleischer had demanded immunity before he would talk about his conversations with Libby, then had admitted to government prosecutors that he had spoken to several reporters about Wilson's wife in the days before he left his job.
In questioning Grenier, defense attorney William H. Jeffress Jr. emphasized the rift between the CIA and the White House.
Grenier said he remembered reading a report in The Washington Post on June 12, 2003, the day after he tried to answer Libby's questions, that quoted anonymous administration sources as saying that the CIA never told Cheney that his questions were the impetus for Wilson's trip or about Wilson's findings.
"Wasn't this embarrassing to the CIA?" Jeffress asked Grenier. "Didn't you tell the FBI that you thought the White House was trying to shift blame to the CIA?"
Grenier testified that he did surmise that White House officials were pointing a finger at the CIA for not alerting them about Wilson's findings.
"The administration was trying to suggest that had they only known about the eminent Ambassador Wilson's [information] . . . it would have somehow stopped the White House from continuing on its errant path to war," Grenier said. "I think they were trying to avoid blame for not providing [the truth] about whether or not Iraq had attempted to buy uranium."
Weeks later, Grenier said he saw Plame's name revealed in Robert D. Novak's syndicated column and figured that it was the work of the White House. In fact, Armitage and Rove have acknowledged that they were Novak's sources. Jeffress also sought to undermine Grenier's testimony by pointing out that Grenier initially told FBI agents and a grand jury that he did not remember whether he had told Libby that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Only later, Jeffress said, did Grenier notify investigators that he had mentioned that she was an employee. "Do you find your memory gets better the further away from an event you are?" Jeffress asked pointedly.