By: The Associated Press, MSNBC and E&P Staff
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald used his opening statement in the CIA leak trial Tuesday to allege that Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff lied about Cheney’s early involvement in the disclosure of a spy?s identity.
Fitzgerald said Cheney told his chief of staff, ?Scooter? Libby, in 2003 that the wife of Iraq critic and former ambassador Joseph Wilson worked for the CIA, and that Libby spread that information to reporters. When that information got out, it triggered a federal investigation.
?But when the FBI and grand jury asked about what the defendant did,? Fitzgerald said, ?he made up a story.?
Fitzgerald alleged that Libby in September 2003 ?wiped out? a Cheney note just before Libby’s first FBI interview when he said he learned about Wilson and his wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame, from reporters, not the vice president.
It was not clear if Fitzgerald meant that the note was destroyed or that Libby had forgotten about it. In any case, the note was recovered and is part of the evidence.
Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction. He told investigators he was surprised to learn the identify of Wilson?s wife from NBC News reporter Tim Russert. Libby says he didn?t lie but was simply bogged down by national security issues and couldn?t remember details of what he told reporters about Plame.
But Fitzgerald told jurors that was clearly a lie because Libby had already been discussing the matter inside and outside of the White House. ?You can?t learn something on Thursday that you?re giving out on Monday,? Fitzgerald said.
The first witness took the stand about 4 p.m. today. He is Marc Grossman, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, and a foreign service officer for 29 years. He would testify about requesting a report about Wilson’s trip to Africa in May 2002 and then passing the results along to Libby. He was then cross-examined by Libby’s attorney and they called it a day around 5 p.m. The blog, FireDogLake, has someone at the courthouse sending out the testimony in impressive detail as it happens all week.
Fitzgerald described for jurors Tuesday a detailed Bush administration effort to beat back early criticism of the Iraq war and accused Libby of covering up his role leaking the identity of a CIA operative.
Libby’s attorney countered with a White House effort of his own, one in which Libby was blamed for the leak to protect Bush political adviser Karl Rove’s own disclosures.
”They’re trying to set me up. They want me to be the sacrificial lamb,” attorney Theodore Wells said, recalling a conversation between Libby and his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, as the leak investigation heated up in 2003. ”I will not be sacrificed so Karl Rove can be protected.”
As the trial opened with a preview of each side’s position, it was clear that the jury will be tasked with sorting through conflicting statements in a high-profile case that has opened a very public window on the behind-the-scenes Washington practice of leaking sensitive information to the news media.
The investigation began after syndicated columnist Robert Novak revealed that a chief Bush administration critic, Joseph Wilson, was married to CIA operative Valerie Plame. Rove was one of two sources for Novak’s story.
Nobody, including Rove, has been charged with the leak. Libby is accused of lying to investigators and obstructing the probe.
By putting the focus on Rove, whom Wells referred to as ”the lifeblood of the Republican party,” Wells sought to cast Libby as someone who was drawn into discussions about Plame only to clear his own reputation. White House officials publicly cleared Rove of wrongdoing but originally stopped short of doing so for Libby.
Using a computerized calendar during opening statement, Fitzgerald cast Libby’s actions much differently. Fitzgerald described a tumultuous week in 2003 when he said the White House was under ”direct attack” from Wilson.
Fitzgerald said Libby learned from five people — from Cheney to members of the CIA and State Department — that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. Libby discussed that fact to reporters and others in the White House, Fitzgerald said.
”But when the FBI and grand jury asked about what the defendant did,” Fitzgerald said, ”he made up a story.”
Libby told investigators he learned about Plame from NBC News reporter Tim Russert. But Fitzgerald told jurors that was clearly a lie because Libby had already been discussing the matter inside and outside of the White House.
”You can’t learn something on Thursday that you’re giving out on Monday,” Fitzgerald said.
Libby says he didn’t lie but was simply bogged down by national security issues and couldn’t remember his conversations with New York Times report Judith Miller, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and Russert.
Opening statements were expected to continue into Tuesday afternoon. The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.
Early today, the federal judge refused to read jurors a lengthy description on the flaws of human memory as the CIA leak trial opened, rejecting a request that could have bolstered a former White House aide’s perjury defense.
Libby says he did not lie but was simply bogged down by national security issues and could not remember details of what he told reporters about Plame.
His attorneys had hoped U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton would tell jurors that “memory does not function like a tape recorder” and “a person is less likely to remember information if he is paying attention to several things at once.”
Walton has refused to help defense attorneys make that point and rejected a request to allow defense attorneys to call a memory expert to testify at trial.