A Lurid Look Behind the Curtain

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; 1:26 PM

There's plenty of exciting White House news today -- not from President Bush's predictable State of the Union speech last night at the Capitol, however, but from the opening arguments at the Scooter Libby trial at the federal courthouse down the street.

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald and Libby defense attorney Theodore V. Wells Jr. offered jurors two dramatically different narratives yesterday, both of them luridly fascinating.

Fitzgerald told jurors he can prove that Libby was sent out by his boss, Vice President Cheney, to savage administration critic Joseph Wilson -- and in the process told two reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA.

Once an investigation into the leak began, Fitzgerald said, Libby "made up" a story about learning of Plame's identity from NBC's Tim Russert even though he had heard it from Cheney a month earlier and the two had talked frequently about Wilson since then.

Wells, by contrast, said reporters who will testify against Libby may be mistaken. He said Libby was very busy with much more important matters.

And he said that once the investigation was launched, Libby was convinced that some of Bush's top aides were trying to "scapegoat" him, rather than let top Bush political strategist Karl Rove take the fall.

How that scapegoating might mitigate Libby's alleged crime of perjuring himself to investigators isn't exactly clear -- but it sure gives us a rare and troubling view of the viper pit that apparently lurks beneath the West Wing's placid veneer.

Was Libby a scapegoat or a liar? Was he a victim of White House backstabbing, or a puppet in Cheney's obsessive war against those who dared question the highly questionable case for war in Iraq? Neither would reflect well on the White House. And they're not mutually exclusive.

If nothing else, the Libby defense hints at an answer to what I have long considered one of the great mysteries of this administration: How do Bush's two Svengalis -- Cheney and Rove -- get along? Apparently, not so great.

The Coverage

Kelly O'Donnell reports for NBC that "the trial.. has exposed a tension in the White House not known publicly before."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "I. Lewis Libby Jr., the vice president's former chief of staff, was made a scapegoat by White House officials to protect the president's longtime political adviser, Karl Rove, Mr. Libby's lawyer asserted in his opening statement on Tuesday. . . .

"The statement by the lawyer, Theodore V. Wells Jr., was the first indication that Mr. Libby, who is facing five felony counts of lying to investigators, would seek to deflect some of the blame onto his former White House colleagues.

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