Monday, January 29, 2007

Fleischer Tells Jury That Libby Told Him About Plame

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told a jury today that Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff disclosed to him the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame a week before her name surfaced publicly in the press.

Taking the stand as the most critical witness so far in the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Fleischer said that in an unusual lunch in the White House mess, Libby told him that the wife of prominent war critic Joseph C. Wilson IV worked in the CIA's counterproliferation division.

Fleischer, who was called by the prosecution, said Libby told him at the July 7 lunch that former ambassador Wilson was sent to Niger to investigate reports Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material there by Wilson's wife, not by the vice president, as some news accounts were saying.

Wilson later accused the administration of twisting information he gathered, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. Some have charged that Plame's name was leaked to columnist Robert D. Novak, who published it in a July 14 column, to discredit Wilson.

Fleischer said he believed that Libby told him Plame's name, but could not be sure.

"He added that this was something hush-hush or on the QT, that not many people knew this information," Fleisher said. "My impression was Mr. Libby was telling me this was kind of newsy."

Added Fleischer: "My thought was that what I was hearing was about nepotism."

Libby is charged with lying to FBI agents and a grand jury and obstructing justice in the investigation of who leaked Plame's name to Novak. He told investigators that he learned about Plame's identity from NBC reporter Tim Russert in a July 10 telephone call. He has pleaded not guilty, contending that when he testified, he did not remember some conversations he had with reporters about Plame. He is not charged with the leak itself.

Fleischer said he never viewed the information he received about Plame as classified or secret, because the protocol in the White House was that press aides would be warned explicitly when information was classified and could not be used in discussions with reporters.

Fleischer also made clear how uncomfortable he was when questioned earlier that day at a press briefing about Wilson's claims that the administration was twisting intelligence. Earlier in the spring, he had insisted that President Bush stood behind 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address about Iraq's efforts to buy uranium in Niger.

But higher level officials he didn't name began suggesting it might be a problem to defend that statement.

"I had been told to be careful not to stand by the 16 words, that the ground might be shifting on that," Fleischer said. "You can't say yes. You can't say no. At that briefing, I basically punted. I said yes and no."

During afternoon testimony, Fleischer told jurors that, a few days after his lunch with Libby, Fleischer had relayed the fact that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA to two reporters while they were covering a trip Bush made to Africa.

According to Fleischer, he passed on the information to the reporters, NBC's David Gregory and Time magazine's John Dickerson, as they were walking alongside a road in Uganda.

The former press secretary said that, in addition to learning about Plame from Libby, he also had just heard another White House aide, then-communications director Dan Bartlett, "vent" about news accounts that Cheney had asked for Wilson's trip. Fleischer said he was in the senior staff cabin of Air Force 1 during the Africa trip when he overheard Bartlett say out loud that Wilson's wife had sent him on the mission to Niger.

He testified that neither Libby nor Bartlett gave him any reason to believe that Plame's employment was classified.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought this information would be classified," he said.

Fleischer, who left the White House in mid-July 2003, said that in September, about 2 1/2 months after his conversation with the reporters, he saw a news account that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate a possibly illegal leak of a covert CIA officer's identity.

"I was absolutely horrified to know I had played a role," Fleischer said. "I thought, 'Oh my God. Did I play a role in somehow outing a CIA officer. . . . Did I just do something that I could be in big trouble for.' "

He said that he hired lawyers and ultimately agreed to be interviewed by investigators after receiving immunity from prosecution.

Defense attorneys told U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton this morning they want to try to cast Fleischer as a man who had a motive to help prosecutors and lie about Libby -- to save himself from possible prosecution for leaking information to reporters in mid-July 2003. Plame's name and secret CIA role first appeared in a syndicated column by Robert Novak on July 14, 2003 -- eight days after her husband publicly accused the administration of using bad intelligence to justify the war with Iraq earlier that year.

But at the same time, defense lawyers warned Walton that they are worried about the government providing too much information or suggesting too much about Fleischer seeking the immunity deal --- because of what it might imply about their own client.

"The government seeks to use this testimony that if Mr. Fleisher thought he had a criminal problem, Mr. Libby must have thought he had a criminal problem," said defense attorney William H. Jeffress Jr.

Defense attorneys are suspicious of the immunity deal and why Fitzgerald made it without any apparent reluctance. Libby's defense lawyers suggested last week in court that Fitzgerald got a secret summary of Fleischer's testimony -- a deal they want to discuss with jurors when Fleischer takes the stand today.

Walton said this morning he had read in his chambers an affidavit the government provided from Fleischer about his immunity deal and was "satisfied" there was nothing to suggest Fleischer promised Fitzgerald any specific testimony. Fitzgerald had said last week no such promises were made.

"We got no specifics," Fitzgerald said then.


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