By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Six journalists testified yesterday that Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, never mentioned an undercover CIA officer to them -- and some said they learned about her identity from other administration sources.
As Libby's attorneys opened their defense in his perjury trial, they argued for a second time that Libby need not take the stand for them to present elements of a defense that his misstatements to investigators were the product of a faulty memory. An irritated U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said he felt misled and believed Libby would testify.
Testifying as the first defense witness, Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus revealed that then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was the first person to tell him, on July 12, 2003, that war critic Joseph C. Wilson IV was married to undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. His remarks contradicted Fleischer's testimony as a prosecution witness last month.
Pincus was the first of six reporters to say they spoke to Libby, or were called by him, during a crucial period in June 2003 and early July 2003 but did not learn Plame's identity from him.
It is during this time that the prosecution says Libby was engaged in a fervent effort to discredit Wilson, who had publicly accused the White House of twisting intelligence he had gathered as it justified the invasion of Iraq. Prosecutors contend that Plame's identity and CIA post were leaked to leave the impression that Wilson was chosen for a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger because of nepotism. Plame's name was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert Novak on July 14, 2003.
Libby, 56, is not charged with the leak itself but with lying to investigators about conversations he had with reporters about Plame in the summer of 2003. The defense contends that Libby, who has pleaded not guilty, inaccurately remembered conversations with journalists because they were insignificant amid his pressing work on national security matters.
The journalists' testimony was designed to help Libby's defense by showing that the defendant did not mention Plame to every reporter with whom he spoke around the time of the leak and that other officials were discussing Plame at about the same time.
Bob Woodward, a best-selling author and an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, told jurors that he learned about Plame during a mid-June 2003 interview with then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage for a book Woodward was researching on the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. He said he interviewed Libby later that month, and his notes indicate that Libby said nothing to him about Plame but that Woodward might have mentioned her to Libby.
Novak testified that he also learned of Plame's position at the CIA from Armitage on July 8, 2003, and confirmed the information with senior White House adviser Karl Rove, probably the next day.
In brief testimony that lasted less than 20 minutes each, reporters Glenn Kessler of the Post, David Sanger of the New York Times and Evan Thomas of Newsweek also told jurors that they spoke with Libby or were called by him during the key week before Novak disclosed Plame's identity. But none heard of Plame from Libby.
Pincus, who covers national security and intelligence issues for The Post, told jurors that he was in the office, talking to a source one Saturday in July about a story he was preparing about Wilson's mission to Niger.
"The person I was calling suddenly swerved off and said . . . 'Don't you know, in effect, his wife works at the CIA, is an analyst on weapons of mass destruction?' " Pincus testified. He told the court that the source said "that's why people aren't paying attention" to Wilson's conclusions that reports of Iraq trying to obtain nuclear material in Niger were unfounded -- because he had been sent on the mission by his wife.
Pincus's account conflicted with Fleischer's testimony last month. As a prosecution witness, Fleischer said he mentioned Plame only to two reporters -- John Dickerson, then of Time magazine, and David Gregory of NBC News -- during a July 2003 trip that President Bush took to Africa. Dickerson has said Fleischer never mentioned Plame to him.
A spokesman for Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald declined to comment on the conflicting testimony.
When Pincus gave a deposition to investigators during the federal probe of the CIA leak, he did not identify his source. He told jurors that he was naming Fleischer now because the former press secretary gave him permission to do so last week.
Woodward's testimony would make him the first journalist known to have been told about Plame by a Bush administration official. At the time of his interview with Armitage, Woodward said, he had learned through reporting that Wilson was the former ambassador who was sent to Africa by the CIA, and he was surprised Wilson's name had not yet surfaced publicly.
In a tape recording of the interview played for the jury, Armitage explains that the CIA took the Niger claim out of a presidential speech in October 2002 but it somehow found its way into Bush's State of the Union address months later. Woodward is heard asking about Wilson and how he happened to make the Niger trip. Some expletives in the conversation were redacted for the jury.
Armitage explains that "his wife works at the agency" on "WMD" issues.
"High enough that wife can say, 'Oh, yeah, hubby will go?' " Woodward asks.
Armitage responds that Wilson "knows Africa," and he ends the conversation with "How about that [expletive]?"
Novak said part of the reason he wrote about Wilson and his wife was that he found Wilson unpleasant and a "questionable choice" to look into the Niger claims after he met him while both were waiting to go onto a television interview program.
"He was saying that things had been done in a superior way in the National Security Council before in the Clinton administration," Novak recalled. "I thought it was sort of an obnoxious performance."
Defense attorney Theodore Wells Jr. pressed Novak to say that hundreds of reporters and others could have known what was going to appear in his July 14 column in the days preceding its publication, because the material was sent over the Associated Press wire on July 11 or July 12. Novak said he discussed the information about Wilson's wife with a close friend, conservative lobbyist Richard Hohlt, on July 11.