Thursday, January 25, 2007

In perjury trial, testimony by Cheney aide damages Libby

WASHINGTON: The spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney told a jury Thursday that she informed Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr., that the wife of a prominent critic of the invasion of Iraq worked for the CIA days before Libby contended he heard the information from a reporter.

Cathie Martin, who was Cheney's chief spokeswoman, was the fourth witness for the prosecution in the perjury and obstruction of justice trial of Libby, who is charged with lying during an investigation of who leaked the name of the CIA operative, Valerie Plame Wilson, and why. Unlike the previous three witnesses, who worked at the CIA and State Department, Martin provided an insider's perspective, one from directly inside the office of the vice president.

The perspective she laid out under questioning from a federal prosecutor was damaging to Libby. She testified that both Cheney and Libby were intensely interested in Wilson and her husband, Joseph Wilson, who had been sent on a mission to Africa to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger for his nuclear weapons program.

Martin's testimony was damaging for Libby in two respects. She bolstered the prosecution's assertion that Libby was fully aware of Wilson's identity from a number of administration officials, and did not first learn about her from reporters, as he has claimed. Perhaps more important, she testified as a former close colleague of Libby's and demonstrated her familiarity with him by repeatedly referring to him by his nickname, Scooter.

Martin, who still works at the White House but no longer for Cheney, described how Libby had telephoned a senior Central Intelligence Agency official in her presence and asked about the Wilson trip. She said she was then put on the phone with Bill Harlow, the CIA's spokesman, who told her that Wilson went on behalf of the agency and that his wife worked there.

Libby is facing five felony counts that he lied when he told a grand jury and FBI agents that he learned of Wilson's identity from reporters. Her identity was first disclosed in a news column by Robert Novak on July 14, 2003, just days after her husband had written a commentary in The New York Times asserting that the Bush administration had distorted intelligence to bolster the case for invading Iraq.

Martin also described a senior staff meeting at the White House in which Stephen Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, expressed anger after receiving a query from Andrea Mitchell of NBC. Mitchell had heard that the White House was blaming the CIA for causing the president to inaccurately say in his State of the Union address that the British government had confirmed Iraq's efforts to buy uranium in Africa.

Martin said that Libby earlier had taken on the task of speaking with Mitchell about that issue. But at the July meeting in the White House, she said that Hadley made a point of turning around and looking at her, as of to signify he knew she was Mitchell's source.

"Were you the source?" she was asked by Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor. She said she was not.

"What was Mr. Libby doing during this complaint from Mr. Hadley?" Fitzgerald asked.

"He was looking down at the floor," she said. At the end of the meeting, she said, Hadley took her aside and upbraided her further.

Theodore Wells Jr., Libby's chief lawyer, in his cross-examination of Martin, had her acknowledge that she had not listened fully to a telephone conversation with Matthew Cooper, then of Time Magazine, on July 12. It was in that conversation that Libby is charged with having told Cooper about Wilson.

On Wednesday, prosecutors paraded a roster of former government officials before the jury to testify that they had informed Libby about the identity of Wilson, contrary to Libby's claim that he had learned about her weeks later from reporters.

Libby's lawyers spent their time cross-examining those witnesses in an effort to attack both their credibility and their memories.

Libby has put the issue of memory front and center in his defense.

He has sworn that he did not discuss Wilson's identity with reporters in the spring and summer of 2003. But two reporters — Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times, and Cooper — have testified that Libby explicitly told them about Wilson.


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