By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a grand jury in 2004 that Vice President Cheney did not encourage him to provide information about an undercover CIA officer to the media, but Libby also said he did not believe that the information was secret and had to be safeguarded, according to audiotapes of Libby's testimony played in court yesterday.
Testifying to the grand jury in the probe that eventually led to criminal charges against him, Libby, Cheney's then-chief of staff, said he remembered Cheney telling him in June 2003 that the wife of a prominent war critic worked at the CIA. Libby said that it was the first time he had heard that, but that Cheney said it in "sort of an offhand manner, as a curiosity."
Libby also testified that he "could not recall" details of events and conversations he had that summer with Cheney and other administration officials regarding the war critic, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson that summer accused the administration of twisting intelligence he had gathered about Iraq's efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program as the White House launched the invasion of Iraq and sold it to the public.
The eight hours of audiotapes, most of which are to be played today, are intended to back up the government's assertion that Libby lied to investigators about his role in disclosing the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife. Prosecutors have alleged that Plame's name was leaked as part of a campaign to discredit Wilson by spreading the idea that his CIA-sponsored trip was the result of nepotism.
Libby is charged not with the leak but with five felony counts of perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice. He has pleaded not guilty, contending that he inaccurately remembered events when he said he learned of Plame from NBC News Washington bureau
chief Tim Russert and forgot he first heard of her from Cheney.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton agreed yesterday that the audiotapes should be released to the media after they are played for the jury, despite strenuous arguments by Libby's defense attorneys that they not be released during trial. Defense lawyer William Jeffress Jr. said the news generated by the tapes -- and the public buzz about them -- could be so widespread that there was a risk jurors could accidentally encounter it, perhaps while riding buses or the Metro.
A consortium of news organizations, including The Washington Post, sought the tapes, arguing that they were no different from other evidence in the trial, which is being released publicly the day it is introduced. They successfully argued that Libby's testimony is far less sensational than other tapes that have been released in court, such as 911 emergency phone calls from inside the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and FBI tapes from the Abscam investigation.
Inside the courtroom, the idea of listening to eight hours of Libby testimony had some jurors' mouths dropping open. But they listened keenly late into the afternoon.
On the tapes, Libby's voice became noticeably softer and trailed off on some questions. He paused often, never rushing his answers. Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who posed the questions, warned Libby he could face perjury charges if he did not tell the grand jury the truth.
On the tapes, Libby said that Cheney did not tell him Plame's CIA identity was "super-super-secret" and that he used a "curious" tone unlike his regular voice, which "was much more matter-of-fact and straight." Libby said he did not remember Cheney speaking harshly of Wilson or suggesting nepotism was the reason for his mission. He said Cheney made the reference to Wilson's wife in the middle of advising Libby on how to respond to assertions that Wilson had been sent on the mission because of questions from the vice president's office.
Libby said a column by the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof in May 2003, which suggested Cheney's role, "caught my eye." But Libby said he did not "have any recollection" of Cheney or President Bush taking note of the article.
Libby also said he could not recall ever asking then-Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman in late May 2003 about Wilson's trip to Niger. Grossman testified two weeks ago that he directed some of his staff to produce a report about Wilson's CIA mission after Libby called him urgently trying to learn more about how and why Wilson was sent to investigate whether Iraq was trying to purchase uranium from the African nation.
Late last night, Libby's defense began laying the groundwork to keep him from having to testify. Walton had warned that Libby would have to take the stand in order for the court to allow his lawyers to assert his misstatements to investigators were caused by a faulty or overtaxed memory.
In court papers filed last night, though, Libby's attorneys argued that he should be allowed to present evidence of the "crush of his duties," including by having Cheney describe them on the witness stand, without being forced to testify on his own behalf.