Star Character Witnesses at Libby Trial

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A familiar-looking man in his early 60s took the stand at the Scooter Libby trial yesterday morning. "I need to ask you to spell your last name," said defense attorney Bill Jeffress.

"W-O-O-D-W-A-R-D," the man replied.

This was not sufficient for Judge Reggie Walton. "We need your first name, too," he said.

"Oh," said the witness. "Bob. B-O-B."

Spectators laughed. Jurors ogled.

Jeffress continued this line of questioning. "What do you do for a living?"

"Assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and book author."

It was a rare moment at the federal courthouse yesterday, and not only because Washington's most famous journalist was answering questions from somebody other than Larry King. Woodward, columnist Robert Novak and a quartet of prominent journalists were called to the stand for the first day of Libby's defense.

Libby must believe himself to be in desperate legal straits to have six journalists serve as his character witnesses. And, indeed, the reporters' testimony appeared to do little to dent the prosecution's case that the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney eagerly shared CIA officer Valerie Plame's name with reporters and then said otherwise under oath. But Libby's team did establish that the defendant wasn't the only administration official dishing about Plame.

The leadoff witness, The Post's Walter Pincus, testified that then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told him about Plame's identity -- directly contradicting Fleischer's sworn testimony. Next, Woodward testified that then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told him about Plame. Novak fingered top Bush strategist Karl Rove as well as Armitage. Combine that with earlier testimony that Fleischer and Libby each leaked to two other reporters, and it seems possible prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald would have had an easier time finding out who in the administration didn't leak Plame's identity.

Defense lawyers, perhaps realizing that relying on reporters was a dicey proposition, sought to build up their credentials. First, Jeffress established that Pincus had shared in a Pulitzer Prize in 2002. Then he got it on the record that Woodward shared in two Pulitzers. David Sanger, who identified himself as "chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times," testified that "I've been fortunate enough to be on a few [Pulitzer-winning] teams."

"A few?" Jeffress asked.

"Two," Sanger amended.

"I believe you're the third Pulitzer Prize winner this morning," Fitzgerald observed dryly.

By the time it got to The Post's Glenn Kessler, the defense lawyer was sheepish. "I pretty much have to ask you this question: Have you won any awards?"

Pincus, wearing his reporter's dog tag around his collar and his tie loose, had the day's biggest revelation: Fleischer "swerved off" from the topic of a conversation in 2003 and told him about Plame's identity. As recently as two weeks ago, Fleischer testified otherwise, saying it's "absolutely correct" that he did not tell Pincus about the CIA worker.

"You've not been prosecuted for perjury?" Jeffress asked at the time.

"Absolutely correct," Fleischer answered.

Novak, whose column identifying Plame started the whole scandal, explained that while Rove and Armitage spoke to him about Plame, he didn't remember whether Libby did, because "I kind of discard unhelpful conversations in my memory bank." His memory bank did, however, retain the information that Plame's husband, Joe Wilson, was "obnoxious."

Novak reminded the jury that as a CNN contributor in 2003, he "was on about four different shows, 'Crossfire' included." But even in a crowded field, Woodward easily qualified as the star witness; the jurors were rapt as he gave them a pro bono journalism course.

"You're familiar with a term called 'off the record'?" Jeffress asked.

Woodward was. "It's confirmation for you and your editors but should not be in the story," he explained. He further explained how "it is my habit to bring a list of questions from one interview to the next because they reflect information I'm getting." And he admitted that this backfired in the case of Cheney, who balked at the 17-page list of questions titled "Q Cheney" and called off the interview. "I overplayed my hand," Woodward said.

Defense lawyers won permission to play for the jury a tape of his interview with Armitage. It showed a Woodward interview style that, in contrast to his broad narratives, is equal parts staccato, gossipy and profane.

Armitage: "His wife's a [expletive] analyst at the agency."

Woodward: "It's still weird."

Armitage: It's perfect . . . she is a WMD analyst out there."

Woodward: "Oh, she is."

Armitage: "Yeah.

Woodward: "Oh, I see."

Armitage: "[Expletive] look at it."

Woodward: "Oh I see. I didn't [expletive] . . ."

Armitage: "His wife is in the agency and is a WMD analyst. How about that [expletive]?"

The jurors chuckled as they listened to the scrubbed transcript.

"You redacted some words that were offensive," Woodward observed.

"Expletives? Yes," Jeffress answered.

Woodward seemed disappointed. "In the raw," he said, "it has a little more fire."

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