By Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified yesterday that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby divulged Valerie Plame's identity to him in July 2003, three days earlier than Libby has told investigators he first learned of the undercover CIA officer.
Fleischer's narrative of Libby's "hush-hush" disclosures over a lunch table in a White House dining room made President Bush's former spokesman the most important prosecution witness to date in the week-old perjury trial of Vice President Cheney's onetime chief of staff.
Though a series of government officials have told the jury that Libby eagerly sought information about a prominent critic of the Iraq war, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, Fleischer was the first witness to say Libby then passed on what he learned: that Wilson's wife was a CIA officer who had sent him on a trip to Africa. Wilson's mission there was to explore reports, ultimately proved false, that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material in Niger.
Fleischer, testifying under an immunity agreement with the prosecution, also made it clear that Libby had told him Wilson's wife held a position in the CIA's counterproliferation division, where most employees work in a covert capacity.
Fleischer said he believes Libby mentioned Plame's name, although he told the jury he could not be sure. Libby "added that this was something hush-hush or on the QT, that not many people knew this information," Fleischer testified.
The unusual spectacle of a president's top spokesman testifying in open court widened the rare view the trial is providing the jury -- and the public -- of the inner workings of a White House that has proudly guarded its privacy.
Libby is charged with lying to FBI agents and a grand jury as well as obstructing justice in a federal investigation of who revealed Plame's name to journalists, including columnist Robert D. Novak, who first published it July 14, 2003. He is not charged with the leak itself, which administration critics have contended was designed to discredit Wilson's argument that the White House was twisting his findings as it justified the invasion of Iraq.
Libby has pleaded not guilty to all five felony counts. He told investigators he learned about Plame's identity during a telephone call on July 10, 2003, with NBC's Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert. He and his attorneys contend he did not remember the conversations he had with reporters about Plame amid the crush of his national security work.
Fleischer's testimony buttressed Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's case in at least two ways. Fleischer testified that his lunch with Libby -- the first he ever had with Cheney's top aide, a week before the press secretary was to leave his White House job -- took place on July 7, 2003, before Libby spoke with Russert.
Fleischer also reinforced the prosecution's central argument: that Libby had been so determined to learn and spread information about Wilson and Plame that he could not have forgotten his efforts.
Both sides have portrayed Libby and Cheney as especially eager to knock down news accounts that Cheney had asked for Wilson's trip.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney William Jeffress Jr., Fleischer said that his conversation with Libby about Wilson's wife had been short and that Fleischer had not relayed that information to reporters until he heard a similar account from another White House aide.
Fleischer testified that, later on the day of his lunch with Libby, he and other top aides left with President Bush on a five-day trip to several African nations. He said that while he was on Air Force One between South Africa and Uganda, he overheard Dan Bartlett, at the time Bush's communications director and now counselor to the president, "vent" about news accounts that Cheney had requested Wilson's mission.
Fleischer said that he decided to tell two reporters, NBC's David Gregory and Time magazine's John Dickerson, as they were walking along a road in Uganda: "If you want to know who sent the ambassador to Niger, it was his wife; she works there" -- a reference to the CIA.
In an interview yesterday, Dickerson, who has left Time and is writing about the trial for Slate, an online magazine, said he recalls that Fleischer had merely urged Gregory and him to "check and see who sent Wilson" on the trip. Dickerson said he first learned about Plame's CIA role from then-colleague Matthew Cooper by telephone several hours after he spoke with Fleischer.
Fleischer testified that neither Libby nor Bartlett invoked a White House protocol under which colleagues warned him when they were providing classified information that could not be discussed with reporters. He said he "never in my wildest dreams thought this information would be classified."
In September 2003, about 2 1/2 months after his conversations with reporters about Plame, Fleischer testified that he saw a news account that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate a possible illegal leak of a covert CIA officer's identity.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God. Did I play a role in somehow outing a CIA officer? . . . Did I just do something that I could be in big trouble for?' "
He said that, although he believed he had passed on classified information unwittingly, he hired lawyers who negotiated his immunity from prosecution, except for the possibility of perjury.
Late yesterday afternoon, Cheney's current chief of staff, David S. Addington, took the witness stand, testifying that Libby had, early in the summer of 2003, asked him whether the president had authority to declassify government secrets and whether the CIA kept paperwork documenting its work. Addington said he replied yes to both.
He testified that Libby did not tell him why he was asking. But Addington said he surmised that the reason might have been Wilson's criticism of the president and the war.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said that former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, the first of several prominent journalists who figure in the case, probably would testify today.