By: E&P Staff
Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s perjury trial continues to expose the inner workings of the White House media machine — and the actions of reporters.
This should come into fine relief on Tuesday, since today’s action ended with word that former New York Times reporter Judith Miller would be first up tomorrow. Admissibility of Libby’s famous “aspens are turning” letter was being discussed by attorneys and judge at the close of the session, as well as the prosecution’s use of certain notes.
On Monday, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer — who has been given immunity — began testifying just after noon, with the early focus on his private lunch with Libby on July 7, 2003, in which the name of CIA staffer Valerie Plame came up in conversation. Libby told Fleischer she worked at the CIA and that this was hush-hush information.
After this first go-round, the trial broke for lunch. When everyone returned, attention shifted to the president’s trip to Africa right after that lunch. Fleischer said White House communications chief Don Bartlett brought up Plame’s name on Air Force One. Later, Fleischer passed along the news to reporters that they ought to look into Plame getting the CIA, where she worked, to send her husband to Africa on his now-famous probe. He identified them as David Gregory of NBC, Tamara Lippert of Newsweek and John Dickerson of Time.
He said their initial reaction was, “so what?” But later in his testimony it was suggested that very quickly Gregory’s boss back in Washington (Tim Russert) and Dickerson’s colleague at Time (Matt Cooper) somehow knew about the Wilson/Plame link.
Fleischer also said he called Walter Pincus of The Washington Post about this matter but said he did not mention Plame.
There was one apparent strong conflict: Fleischer said he mentioned Plame by name and said she worked at the CIA. Dickerson has said, and repeated Monday in an interview, that Fleischer simply suggested that the reporters look into who sent Wilson.
NBC’s Russert is expected to be called later in the week, and other journalists will appear shortly.
David Addington, a top aide to Vice President Cheney, testified briefly after Fleischer.
E&P is monitoring what seems to be the most highly detailed and accurate minute-by-minute coverage from inside the courthouse, provided by bloggers at FireDogLake.com. Direct quotes from testimony, however, are taken from today’s press accounts.
Fleischer in his testimony also said that about two months after exiting his White House job in July 2003, he read in the papers about the outing of Plame and feared he may have had a role in it himself. “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 then contacted a lawyer and this led to his immunity agreement.
On Monday morning, Fleischer had said that he interpreted Libby’s reference to Plame on July 7, 2003, as simply suggesting that “nepotism” was involved in sending her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, on his Africa trip. He said he did not know if she was in a classified position, but then again, he did not know much about the CIA. But this marked the first time, he said, he had ever heard that the vice president’s office had not sent Wilson on this trip.
The first revelation on Monday: One juror has been dropped, for reasons so far unspecified. Then former spokeswoman for the vice president, Cathie Martin, concluded her testimony.
AP reports on Monday the early Fleischer testimony as follows.
“Ambassador Wilson was sent by his wife,” Fleischer recalled Libby saying. “His wife works for the CIA.”
Fleischer said Libby also used the woman’s name, Valerie Plame, and told him it was “hush hush.”
“My sense is that Mr. Libby was telling me this was kind of newsy,” Fleischer said.
Fleischer testified under an immunity deal with prosecutors and arrived in court with his attorneys. He sought the deal because he discussed Plame with reporters. Libby’s attorneys plan to argue during cross-examination that the immunity deal makes Fleischer’s testimony less credible.
Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg sought to head off that argument early in Fleischer’s testimony by having him describe his deal.
“I cannot be prosecuted for what I did with the information I was provided,” Fleischer said. “The immunity provides no protection for perjury.”
Libby says he was surprised to learn from NBC News reporter Tim Russert that Plame worked at the CIA. Anything he later told reporters about Plame was simply a repetition of what he learned from Russert, Libby said.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s first witnesses were government employees who testified that they told Libby about Plame days before the Russert conversation. Fleischer is a key witness because, as Fitzgerald said in his opening statement: “You can’t learn something on Thursday that you’re giving out on Monday.”
Meanwhile, at the White House today, the current press secretary, Tony Snow, had this exchange with reporters.
Q How closely is the President following the Libby trial?
MR. SNOW: Not that closely really. I know there’s this perception that we’re all sitting around buzzing about it, but we really aren’t.
Q Well, I mean, you’ve got Rove and Bartlett both subpoenaed, and you’ve got the Vice President testifying. I would think there would be some interest in the White House.
MR. SNOW: Yes, but it’s just — look, it is what it is, it’s an ongoing trial, and we’re not going to comment on it further.
Q What is the President’s response to seeing the White House portrayed as being at war with itself?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, as I said, as tempting as it is to jump into that, we’re not commenting.
Q Are you glad you were not press secretary then? (Laughter.)
MR. SNOW: I am glad I’m press secretary now.