Pulling the Curtain
No one looks especially noble in the trial of Scooter Libby
The perjury trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former right-hand man won't go down in history as the turning point in the collapse of the Bush administration's once powerful control over its Iraq message. That milestone has long since passed.
But testimony by an all-star parade of witnesses in Lewis "Scooter" Libby's federal trial will make a fascinating footnote-with details about the usually secret and occasionally inept workings of a wartime White House and the reporters who cover it.
Libby is on trial in Washington for allegedly lying to a grand jury and FBI agents investigating whether administration officials illegally leaked to the media the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame in an effort to undermine the credibility of her husband, war critic Joseph Wilson. No one has been indicted for revealing her name, but Libby was charged with obstructing justice and perjury for discrepancies between his account and that of other witnesses about how he learned of the now former CIA operative and when he took that information to reporters.
The trial, which continues this week, has laid bare some of the capital's most peculiar tribal rituals. The jury has seen Libby's handwritten notes on the administration's plan to discredit Wilson, who, after a CIA-sponsored trip to Africa, wrote a New York Times piece disputing one of President Bush's arguments for going to war-that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium ore from Niger. Jurors heard former New York Times reporter Judith Miller's pricelessly convoluted, but largely accurate, explanation of how many journalists and their sources negotiate information-from "on the record" and "background" to "deep background" and beyond. And those jurors learned how far administration apparatchiks will go to protect themselves.
Libby, Cheney's powerful former chief of staff, walked a tortured path to Judge Reggie Walton's chambers in U.S. District Court. It all started in summer 2003, when the White House was in high dudgeon over Wilson's assertions. Libby's meeting notes say that staffers were agitated that the former ambassador's claims were topping news reports and undermining the president's "trustworthiness." Top Bush aide Karl Rove, Libby wrote, bemoaned that Wilson had been accepted as "a credible expert."
Coddling. A pushback was hatched, and on a list of national journalists to be coddled, according to testimony by Cheney's communications director, was Miller, a controversial veteran Times reporter who had written extensively about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war. Miller has since become a lightning rod; much of her prewar reporting has been discredited, and she has been criticized for being too cozy with the administration, including Libby, and thus helping it make the case for war.
Though Miller, who has since resigned from the Times, never wrote about Plame, she became a cause célèbre in 2005 when she spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal to the grand jury that Libby gave her information about Wilson's wife. Miller was released, and agreed to testify, after Libby sent a note permitting her to disclose his identity. Her incarceration raised profound questions about the sanctity of reporter-source interactions and reinvigorated the ongoing debate about whether, in the public interest, such relationships deserve protection.
Miller was among a half-dozen witnesses last week-including former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer-who contradicted Libby's claim that he learned about Plame from NBC's Tim Russert during a July 10, 2003, conversation. Miller testified that Libby mentioned Plame to her in two meetings and a phone call that predated July 10.
Before the prosecution rests this week, it will question Russert, who has denied Libby's claim they spoke about Plame. Libby's lawyers will press their case that the administration made their client a Plamegate scapegoat to protect the powerful Rove. But this case isn't about scapegoating or leaks. It's about whether Libby told the truth under oath. After last week, that may be a difficult sell.
This story appears in the February 12, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.