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In Ex-Aide's Testimony, A Spin Through VP's PR

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

Memo to Tim Russert: Dick Cheney thinks he controls you.

This delicious morsel about the "Meet the Press" host and the vice president was part of the extensive dish Cathie Martin served up yesterday when the former Cheney communications director took the stand in the perjury trial of former Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Flashed on the courtroom computer screens were her notes from 2004 about how Cheney could respond to allegations that the Bush administration had played fast and loose with evidence of Iraq's nuclear ambitions. Option 1: "MTP-VP," she wrote, then listed the pros and cons of a vice presidential appearance on the Sunday show. Under "pro," she wrote: "control message."

"I suggested we put the vice president on 'Meet the Press,' which was a tactic we often used," Martin testified. "It's our best format."

It is unclear whether the first week of the trial will help or hurt Libby or the administration. But the trial has already pulled back the curtain on the White House's PR techniques and confirmed some of the darkest suspicions of the reporters upon whom they are used. Relatively junior White House aides run roughshod over members of the president's Cabinet. Bush aides charged with speaking to the public and the media are kept out of the loop on some of the most important issues. And bad news is dumped before the weekend for the sole purpose of burying it.

With a candor that is frowned upon at the White House, Martin explained the use of late-Friday statements. "Fewer people pay attention to it late on Friday," she said. "Fewer people pay attention when it's reported on Saturday."

Martin, perhaps unaware of the suspicion such machinations caused in the press corps, lamented that her statements at the time were not regarded as credible. She testified that, as the controversy swelled in 2004, reporters ignored her denials and continued to report that it was Cheney's office that sent former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate allegations of Iraq's nuclear acquisitions. "They're not taking my word for it," Martin recalled telling a colleague.

Martin, who now works on the president's communications staff, said she was frustrated that reporters wouldn't call for comment about the controversy. She said she had to ask the CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow, which reporters were working on the story. "Often, reporters would stop calling us," she testified.

This prompted quiet chuckles among the two dozen reporters sitting in court to cover the trial. Whispered one: "When was the last time you called the vice president's office and got anything other than a 'no comment'?"

At length, Martin explained how she, Libby and deputy national security adviser Steve Hadley worked late into the night writing a statement to be issued by George Tenet in 2004 in which the CIA boss would take blame for the bogus claim in Bush's State of the Union address that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Africa.

After "delicate" talks, Tenet agreed to say the CIA "approved" the claim and "I am responsible" -- but even that disappointed Martin, who had wanted Tenet to say that "we did not express any doubt about Niger."

During her testimony, Martin, a Harvard Law School graduate married to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and a close pal of Bush counselor Dan Bartlett, seemed uncomfortable, shifting in her chair, squinting at her interrogators, stealing quick glances at the jury, and repeatedly touching her cheek, ear, nose, lips and scalp.

Martin shed light on the mystery of why White House press secretary Scott McClellan promised, falsely, that Libby was not involved in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife. After McClellan had vouched for Bush strategist Karl Rove's innocence, Libby asked Martin, "Why don't they say something about me?"

"You need to talk to Scott," Martin advised.

On jurors' monitors were images of Martin's talking points, some labeled "on the record" and others "deep background." She walked the jurors through how the White House coddles friendly writers and freezes out others. To deal with the Wilson controversy, she hastily arranged a Cheney lunch with conservative commentators. And when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof first wrote about the Niger affair, she explained, "we didn't see any urgency to get to Kristof" because "he frankly attacked the administration fairly regularly."

Questioned by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Martin described how Hadley tried to shield White House spokesmen from the Niger controversy. "Everybody was sort of in the dark," she explained. "There had been a decision not to have the communicators involved."

But Martin, encouraged by Libby, secretly advised Libby and Cheney on how to respond. She put "Meet the Press" at the top of her list of "Options" but noted that it might appear "too defensive." Next, she proposed "leak to Sanger-Pincus-newsmags. Sit down and give to him." This meant that the "no-leak" White House would give the story to the New York Times' David Sanger, The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, or Time or Newsweek. Option 3: "Press conference -- Condi/Rumsfeld." Option 4: "Op-ed."

Martin was embarrassed about the "leak" option; the case, after all, is about a leak. "It's a term of art," she said. "If you give it to one reporter, they're likelier to write the story."

For all the elaborate press management, things didn't always go according to plan. Martin described how Time wound up with an exclusive one weekend because she didn't have a phone number for anybody at Newsweek.

"You didn't have a lot of hands-on experience dealing with the press?" defense attorney Theodore Wells asked.

"Correct," Martin replied. After further questions, she added: "Few of us in the White House had had hands-on experience with any crisis like this."

Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.

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