Libby Trial Offered Glimpses of Way White House Worked

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

When he took the stand as the fifth prosecution witness in the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified that the vice president's then-chief of staff "was not somebody who would typically provide information to me."

Whenever he asked Vice President Cheney's most trusted adviser for help, he usually received the same answer. "You should check with Dr. Rice," Fleischer said Libby would tell him, referring to Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser before she became secretary of state.

The glimpse of that cool interaction between the press secretary and the vice president's right-hand man was one of many tantalizing insights the trial offered into a White House culture in which even the top aides who surrounded the president were not entirely open with one another.

At the Bush White House described in the Libby trial, news media advisers were frozen out of decisions about how to respond to a crisis, colleagues kept from one another which reporters they had talked with, and the president declassified parts of a highly significant national security document without the knowledge of his chief of staff.

"They seem to have created all these little monopolies, all these little 'need-to-knows.' It creates cleavages internally," said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, a research group promoting access to government records that has combed through the Libby trial exhibits.

Blanton said the evidence presented at the trial that ended Tuesday in Libby's conviction demonstrates that "this administration's obsession with secrecy" extends to the way Bush's aides interact with each other. In particular, Blanton said, "the Cheney office seems to have raised information-hoarding . . . to a real fine art."

Testimony from eight current and former administration officials, combined with handwritten notes and other evidence, also made clear that a White House that likes to profess an indifference to its public image has at times been quite the opposite on the inside.

Time and again, witnesses gave fresh details of a zeal to manipulate and monitor the administration's portrayal in the news media that reached the top echelons of the White House.

At one point, early in the summer of 2003, Cheney personally directed his staff to watch every television news show that mentioned him, in addition to its customary clipping of published articles, his former public affairs director testified. And witnesses provided a vivid window into rivalries between the vice president's office and other parts of the White House -- and between the West Wing and agencies responsible for diplomacy and national security.

"For six years, the conventional wisdom was, this was an absolutely smooth-running machine with everyone in harness, all message control," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. "From my gleaning, the sense in the trial was . . . there were competing forces in the White House, competing and tugging."

Taken together, the trial testimony and evidence depict the Bush White House as it operated near the peak of its powers in the spring and summer of 2003 -- when the Iraq war was new and less unpopular, the administration's slump in public opinion had not yet begun, and Republicans still controlled both chambers of Congress.

Libby was convicted of perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice for lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury about when he learned about and whom he told about an undercover CIA officer, Valerie Plame, who is the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.

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