By Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 9, 2007
Prosecutors rested their case yesterday in the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, completing a methodical portrait of a top-tier presidential aide who they say diligently scrambled to defend the White House against an early critic of the Iraq war and then lied to investigators about what he had done.
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald concluded the prosecution's portion of the trial after 11 days in which he laid out for jurors a chronological narrative -- of a volatile period inside in the White House in 2003 -- that was sometimes dry but provided tantalizing glimpses into the worlds of President Bush's closest advisers and an elite tier of Washington journalists.
The prosecution first demonstrated the steps Libby allegedly took to find out the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA officer married to a former ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson accused the White House of twisting intelligence he had gathered as it justified the invasion of Iraq.
Fitzgerald then led jurors through the sequence of journalists and a White House press secretary Libby allegedly told about Plame in an effort, the prosecutor alleges, to discredit her husband by suggesting Wilson was sent on the CIA-sponsored mission as a result of nepotism.
Finally, the prosecutor -- relying on an FBI agent, eight hours of audiotapes of Libby testifying before a federal grand jury, and NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert -- laid out the fabrications the government contends Libby told about his role in the leak.
On Monday, defense attorneys are scheduled to begin presenting their case, which will try to cast a more flattering light on Libby's statements and behavior. The defense has said it plans to begin by calling as witnesses several journalists, including some from The Washington Post, in part to show that Libby did not mention Plame to every reporter with whom he spoke early in the summer of 2003, around the time of the CIA leak.
The prosecution rested after one of Libby's attorneys spent hours yesterday hammering the ethics, memory and motives of Russert, potentially the government's most damaging witness. As the grand finale in the prosecution's effort to prove that the vice president's former chief of staff lied to investigators about his role in the leak, Russert told jurors it was "impossible" that he had disclosed Plame's identity to Libby, as Libby told FBI agents and a federal grand jury.
To try to undermine his testimony, defense attorney Theodore Wells Jr. suggested that Russert harbored personal animosity for Libby and was "elated" when he was indicted in 2005.
On the witness stand for more than five hours of pointed cross-examination over two days, Russert said that he took no joy in Libby's fate and that, on the morning of Oct. 28, 2005, he had been keyed up only because a major news story on the indictments was to unfold within hours. But Wells implied to the jury that Russert had darker motives.
The defense played in court snippets of radio personality Don Imus's interview of Russert that morning. Russert, the moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," spoke in giddy tones that contrasted markedly with his sober, careful style in court.
"It was like Christmas Eve here last night," Russert told Imus about his newsroom's anticipation of the results of the federal investigation that Fitzgerald was about to announce. "Santa Claus is coming tomorrow. Surprises! What's going to be under the tree?"
Wells also read parts of a transcript from that same day's broadcast of the "Today" show, in which Russert explained to host Katie Couric the significance of possible indictments against Libby or President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, which newspapers were reporting that morning.
"It's huge, Katie," Russert said on the program. "This is the first time in 130 years that a sitting White House official would come under indictment."
Russert's buoyant tone, Wells contended, reflected "bad blood" between Russert and Libby. Wells also pressed Russert to try to illustrate that he had a flawed memory, that he could have learned of Plame from two NBC colleagues, and that he acted inconsistently by answering an FBI agent's questions early in the investigation but seeking unsuccessfully months later to fight a grand jury subpoena for his testimony.
Fitzgerald tried unsuccessfully yesterday to persuade U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton to prevent the defense from reading the jury excerpts of Russert's "Today" comments. "To turn it into a grudge match -- with some sort of bad blood -- I think that is a stretch," Fitzgerald argued.
Wells also suggested that Russert's 22-minute deposition with the special counsel had been incomplete because Russert was not asked whether he was told about Wilson's wife by NBC colleagues Andrea Mitchell or David Gregory, who were working on aspects of the unfolding Wilson story. Russert acknowledged that he was not asked about either one during his deposition but told the jury "they never came forward" to share with him anything they were learning about Wilson from administration officials.
Libby, 56, faces five felony counts of lying to investigators and a grand jury. He is not charged with actual disclosure of Plame's identity. He has repeatedly testified that he shared information about Plame with other reporters only after learning it from Russert during a telephone call.
Libby has acknowledged that Cheney first told him about Plame's CIA job in June 2003 but said that he forgot he knew about her by the time that, according to his account, Russert mentioned her nearly a month later.
Russert testified Wednesday that he could not have told Libby about Plame because he had not heard of her until she was publicly revealed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak on July 14, 2003 -- four days after Russert spoke with the vice president's right-hand man.
Fitzgerald has argued that Libby fabricated the story about learning the information from Russert to protect himself from criminal charges. Passing along gossip from a reporter would not be a crime, but disclosing a CIA officer's classified status to reporters after learning it from the vice president could be.