Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Libby trial puts powerful in spotlight

Witness list includes writers, top officials

When Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff goes on trial today on charges of lying about the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity, members of Washington's government and media elite will be answering some embarrassing questions as well.

Lewis "Scooter" Libby's case will put on display the secret strategizing of an administration that cherry-picked information to justify war in Iraq and reporters who traded freely in gossip and protected their own interests as they worked on one of the big Washington stories of 2003.

The estimated six-week trial will pit current and former Bush administration officials against one another and, if Cheney is called, will mark the first time that a sitting vice president has testified in a criminal case. It also will force the media into painful territory, with as many as 10 journalists called to testify for or against an official who was, for some of them, a confidential source.

Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity drew attention in the summer of 2004, when reporters were first ordered under threat of jail to reveal their anonymous sources in the administration. In October 2005, Libby was indicted on charges of perjuring himself before a grand jury, making false statements to investigators and obstruction of justice (though he was not one of the leakers to columnist Robert Novak, who first disclosed Plame's identity).

Different versions

The case boils down to two drastically different versions of events in the spring and summer of 2003. The government alleges that Libby was involved in a White House effort to discredit Plame's husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had accused the Bush administration of twisting information he provided on Iraq's nuclear weapons program. Wilson led a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger a year earlier and found no grounds for claims that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium there.

Eight days after Wilson went public with his claims, Plame's identity as a CIA officer appeared in Novak's column.

The defense says that neither Libby nor the White House sought to retaliate against Wilson and that Libby misspoke to investigators looking into the disclosure because he was overwhelmed by national security and other matters.

Presiding U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton and lawyers for both sides will begin selecting 12 jurors along with alternates today. It is not expected to be an easy task, given the heavy publicity and the involvement of two institutions - the government and the news media - low in the public's esteem.

Walton has also girded for intense media coverage, issuing unusually strict orders last week that bar attorneys from commenting publicly during the trial.

Alleged leaks

Fitzgerald's probe focused on a tense time in Washington, starting in May 2003, when the administration sought to defend its invasion of Iraq even as U.S. troops failed to find weapons of mass destruction, which the administration had cited as one of the main reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein. That month, without naming Wilson, reporters began writing about his accusations that Bush had sold the war to the American public using intelligence Wilson had found to be groundless. Wilson went public with his accusations during the first week of July.

On July 14, Novak published a column identifying Wilson's wife, Plame, as a CIA employee who helped arrange her husband's trip to investigate the Iraq claim.

The government alleges that before Novak's column appeared, Libby set out to discredit and silence Wilson after Cheney shared his irritation about Wilson's claims and Plame's role at the CIA. Prosecutors say Libby shared Plame's role with a New York Times reporter, Judith Miller. At the time, Miller was trying to defend her own reporting, which had asserted evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"It is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish' Wilson," Fitzgerald wrote in a court filing last year.

Later, when a leak investigation was opened, prosecutors allege that Libby lied to FBI agents, telling them that he had learned about Plame from Russert in a telephone call on July 10 or 11 and that he had passed along that information as unconfirmed gossip to two other reporters.

The forgetfulness defense

Randall Eliason, a former chief of public corruption cases in the U.S. attorney's office, said the evidence appears to make it difficult for Libby to claim forgetfulness. "You have the vice president cutting out a section of the newspaper, circling it and saying, 'Let's find out about this.' You don't rise to the level of being the vice president's chief of staff by letting that kind of thing slip your mind."

The defense contends that Libby forgot how he learned Plame's identity and misspoke when questioned twice by the FBI and twice by a grand jury about his conversations with reporters. He insists that there was no cabal to "get" Wilson.

The defense maintains that the fact that Novak first learned about Plame from Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state and a skeptic of the war, proves there was no conspiracy.

Libby's attorneys have said they plan to call Cheney as a witness, presumably to help establish that Libby was indeed engulfed by national security matters and had no motive to lie. Lawyers around town say they would pay for a seat in court when Fitzgerald, one of the best trial prosecutors in the country, cross-examines the vice president, a sharp-tongued debater.

Charles Tobin, who heads the media law practice for Holland & Knight, said that the case already has had serious consequences for journalists by forcing them to reveal their sources and that it will continue to hurt newsgathering.
"There's certainly going to be a hesitation among sources as they see this trial unfold and watch what happens with Libby," he said. "Will they have conversations with reporters if they think those conversations can be used to prosecute them?"


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