Former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby goes on trial Tuesday over the administration’s response to one critic who questioned assertions President Bush made four years ago to justify waging war against Iraq.
Once the right-hand man to Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby faces charges of perjury and obstruction of an investigation into the leak of a CIA officer’s identity to reporters.
Libby joins a long list of presidents’ men to face charges in the federal courthouse in the nation’s capital– Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman in Watergate, Adm. John Poindexter and Marine Col. Oliver North in Iran-Contra.
In those scandals, trials spawned more trials and long reports from independent counsels. Libby, however, probably will be the only official charged in the CIA leak investigation. His trial is unlikely to fix blame for the scandal and there will be no narrative report.
The trial, nevertheless, should give the public glimpses of how Bush administration insiders responded to one high-level critic– former ambassador Joseph Wilson — who claimed the president and his closest advisers distorted intelligence and lies to push the nation into war with Iraq.
Wilson was the leading critic of Bush’s claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa. Wilson, who was sent to Niger to check the uranium story, told reporters the intelligence did not check out and the administration knew that long before Bush included the assertion in his State of the Union speech in January 2003.
The criticism led White House officials — including Cheney — to begin questioning how Wilson ended up making the trip and whether Wilson’s wife, a CIA officer, was involved. In June 2003, the back-room chatter made its way into the press.
Wilson says the information about his wife — Valerie Plame — was leaked on purpose as retaliation and was part of an effort to silence other critics in the intelligence world.
[[See lengthy take on the Cheney connection by a writer who has followed the case intensely, Murray Waas, at the National Journal’s web site.]]
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald spent three years investigating that claim but filed no charges based on the leak itself. He says his work is done except for trying Libby, who resigned after being indicted in October 2005.
Fitzgerald has made clear in court that he wants to keep the larger, political backstory out of the trial and focus narrowly on whether Libby lied to his investigators and obstructed the case.
That leaves Libby in the unexpected position of wanting to talk about the whole story of the leak and who else was involved. Libby’s lawyers say Plame’s identity was not disclosed because of a grand conspiracy, but rather because of political infighting among the CIA, the White House and the State Department over intelligence failures on Iraq.
The more jurors hear about that, defense lawyers say, the more likely they are to believe Libby had no reason to lie and the better his chances are for acquittal.
Libby plans to testify about the other things he had on his mind when Plame was outed and when the FBI questioned him. He says terrorist threats, Middle East tensions, the war in Iraq and emerging nuclear programs in Iran, North Korea and Pakistan overshadowed the Plame issue and clouded his memory about how and when he learned Plame’s identity.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton has said he will allow Libby to make that “memory defense” using summaries of classified information. But the judge had said he is reluctant to allow defense lawyers to rehash the entire scandal.
The case will make history as the first time a sitting vice president has testified at a criminal trial, historians say. Libby’s lawyers say they plan to call Cheney, who can bolster claims that Libby had more pressing things on his mind than Plame.
Fitzgerald’s star witnesses include reporters from some of nation’s leading media organizations. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail trying to avoid telling Fitzgerald about her conversations with Libby. She is expected to testify about three interviews in which he referred to Plame.
Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, is a crucial witness for Fitzgerald. Libby says it was Russert who first told him that Plame worked for the CIA. Russert says the conversation was quite different and did not even mention Plame.
Fitzgerald argues that Libby deliberately made up his version of the Russert conversation to conceal a concerted White House effort to learn about Plame.
An open question is whether Libby will call Karl Rove, Bush’s political strategist, who also spoke to reporters about Plame. Fitzgerald considered but decided against charging Rove over his statements to investigators.
As the political storm grew in 2003, Bush’s spokesman pledged that anyone who leaked Plame’s name would be fired. But in 2005, when Rove was under suspicion, Bush himself backed off that claim; the president said only that he would fire anyone who committed a crime.
Jury selection begins Tuesday in a trial that is expected to last about six weeks. Jurors probably will be asked about their political views, their stance on the war and their feelings about the administration.