By Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Vice President Cheney and other senior White House officials regarded a former ambassador's accusations that President Bush misled the nation in going to war in Iraq as an unparalleled political assault and, early in the summer of 2003, held daily discussions about how to debunk them, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a federal grand jury.
In grand jury audiotapes played yesterday during Libby's perjury trial, the vice president's then-chief of staff said Cheney had been "upset" and "disturbed" by criticisms from former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV that Bush had twisted intelligence to justify the war. And Libby said that Karl Rove had been "animated" by a conversation with Robert D. Novak, in which the conservative columnist told Rove he "had a bad taste in his mouth" about Wilson and was writing a column about him.
Libby is charged with lying to the grand jury as it investigated a leak by administration officials of the identity of Wilson's wife, an undercover CIA officer named Valerie Plame. The sound of Libby's clear, measured voice in the tapes -- filling a courtroom in U.S. District Court here for six hours over the past two days -- buttresses the prosecution's case in two significant ways.
Libby's portrayal of the zeal to discredit Wilson's claims, reaching to the White House's highest echelons, reinforces Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's assertion that the criticism of war provoked such a political crisis among Bush's top aides that it is unlikely the defendant simply forgot his role in the leak, as defense attorneys contend.
In addition, the tapes display the specific gaps between Libby's version of events and those of government officials and journalists who, as prosecution witnesses, have testified about conversations they had with Libby about Plame.
Repeatedly, Libby told the grand jury that he did not recall various conversations about Plame. His account conflicts with those of a former White House press secretary, a former undersecretary of state, Cheney's former public affairs director, two CIA officials and a pair of journalists.
Libby told the grand jury "it seemed to me as if I was learning it for the first time" when, according to his account, NBC's Tim Russert told him about Plame on July 10 or 11, 2003. Only later, when looking at his calendar and notes, Libby said, did he remember that he actually learned the information from Cheney in June 2003.
After the jury hears the final two hours of tapes today, Russert, host of "Meet the Press," is scheduled to testify before the prosecution concludes its case this week.
Libby, 56, the only person indicted in the leak investigation, has not been charged with actually disclosing Plame's CIA role. He faces five felony counts that he lied to FBI agents and the grand jury and that he obstructed the investigation. His lawyers are arguing that Libby had a notoriously bad memory -- and that he innocently but incorrectly remembered his interactions with journalists.
The prosecution alleges that, as part of the White House's strategy to discredit Wilson, Libby deliberately revealed Plame's identity to selected reporters, because her CIA job implied that Wilson was chosen for the Africa mission because of nepotism, not his expertise.
In the tapes, Libby also describes Cheney's eagerness to use what had been a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a secret summary of the evidence of whether Iraq posed a threat, to rebut Wilson. The NIE was declassified just after Wilson's criticism emerged. Yesterday's tapes made it clear how many of Bush's most senior aides had been unaware of that decision, even as they were arguing for the document to be released.
According to Libby's testimony, during two volatile weeks in July 2003, Cheney and Bush were the only people who knew the president apparently had authorized Libby to use portions of the NIE. Left in the dark were many aides, including then-White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., then-CIA Director George J. Tenet, and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
In response to methodical questioning by Fitzgerald during two grand jury appearances in March 2004, Libby said that he did not remember discussing Plame with a former CIA official, Robert Grenier. Two weeks ago, Grenier testified that Libby telephoned him out of the blue to ask about a CIA-sponsored mission to the African nation of Niger -- and was so eager to find out that he called back three hours later and pulled Grenier out of a meeting with Tenet.
Similarly, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has testified that Libby disclosed Wilson's wife's identify to him over a lunch in the White House mess. But in the tapes, Libby told the grand jury, "I do not recall discussing Mr. Wilson's wife at all with Ari." Libby said, however, that he distinctly remembers talking with Fleischer about the Miami Dolphins, because it was the only conversation he had that week about the team.