Ex-Time Reporter Testifies in Libby Trial
Thursday, February 1, 2007
A former Time magazine reporter said in court yesterday that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby confided that the wife of an Iraq war critic worked at the CIA, becoming the second journalist to testify that the vice president's then-chief of staff disclosed the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Matthew Cooper, the magazine's White House reporter in the summer of 2003, told jurors in Libby's perjury trial that President Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, was the first administration official to privately tell him that former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was married to a CIA officer. The next day, Cooper said, he asked Libby whether Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.
According to Cooper, Libby said "words to the effect, 'Yeah, I've heard that, too,' " though Libby did not name her.
When Libby learned Plame's identity and what he did with that information are pivotal issues in the trial. During a federal investigation into the CIA leak, Libby told FBI agents and a grand jury that he found out about the CIA officer, whose husband was lashing out at the administration's use of Iraq intelligence, during a conversation on July 10, 2003, with NBC's Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert. Libby is charged with lying to investigators, committing perjury and obstructing the investigation.
Cooper is the third prosecution witness to say that Libby was actively spreading information about Wilson and his wife soon after he sought to learn who they were. It follows testimony yesterday and on Tuesday from former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who said Libby told her about Wilson's wife twice in the days and weeks before Vice President Cheney's right-hand man at the time contends he ever heard of Plame.
The pair's turn on the witness stand also provided an unflattering portrayal of how some of Washington's most prominent journalists work. If the testimony of half a dozen government officials earlier in the trial exposed infighting at the highest levels of the Bush administration, the testimony of Cooper and Miller exposed jurors -- and the public -- to the sloppy and incomplete note-taking of reporters, their inability to remember crucial interviews and, in Miller's case, important interview notes stuffed into a shopping bag under her desk.
Libby is the only person charged in the federal investigation into how Plame's name was disclosed to journalists, including Robert D. Novak, who revealed Plame's role and name in a syndicated column on July 14, 2003. Novak's column appeared eight days after Wilson published a stinging rebuke that accused the administration of twisting intelligence he had gathered as it tried to justify invading Iraq.
Libby is not charged with the leak itself. He has pleaded not guilty to five felony counts, contending that he innocently misremembered conversations with reporters because they were insignificant amid his work on critical national security matters.
Under questioning by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald and cross-examination by defense attorney William Jeffress Jr., Cooper portrayed the revelations to him by Rove and Wilson as part of a strategy to disparage Wilson. In 2002, the former ambassador had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate reports that Iraq had tried to buy uranium there for use in its nuclear weapons program. Wilson brought home his conclusion that those reports were unfounded.
Cooper testified that Rove cautioned him on July 11, 2003, not to "lionize" Wilson, because he actually had been sent on the mission by his wife.
The next day, a Saturday, Cooper was waiting for a call from Libby while he raced to finish reporting a story for that Monday's issue of Time. Cooper said he spent the morning at the Chevy Chase Club, where cellphones and BlackBerrys are not allowed, and repeatedly ran to the parking lot to see whether Libby had called. It was in the afternoon while Cooper was sprawled on his bed at home, he said, when Libby called his cellphone twice.
In the first call, he said, Libby read him a statement that Cooper said tried to distance Cheney's office from Wilson's trip and his conclusions. In the second, shorter, call a few minutes later, Cooper said, he slipped in the question about Wilson's wife. Cooper said he asked the question off the record, but nevertheless considered Libby's reply as confirmation. He said Libby also criticized the methods Wilson had used to investigate the uranium reports.
Responding to a question from Jeffress, Cooper acknowledged that he did not ask Libby any follow-up questions about how Libby had learned about Wilson's wife. He said that Libby did not identify her by name or say she worked in an undercover capacity. He said that he did not pursue the issue more deeply because Libby was rushing to end their conversation.
Jeffress sought to suggest that Cooper's memory -- as well as his note-taking -- was faulty and that he could have learned about Plame from his own colleague, former Time magazine reporter John Dickerson. Dickerson was covering a trip Bush took to Africa when White House press secretary Ari Fleischer shared information about Wilson's wife with him and another reporter, Fleischer testified earlier this week.
Also yesterday, Miller -- the former New York Times reporter who was jailed for 85 days after initially refusing to testify about her sources -- told jurors that she heard about Plame from other government officials, in addition to Libby. She said she could not remember who those officials were.
Miller told the jury she believes Libby was, in the summer of 2003, the first person to tell her that Plame worked at the CIA and was married to a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policies. But she acknowledged: "I can't be absolutely, absolutely certain."