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West Wing drama unfolds at Libby's trial

West Wing drama unfolds at Libby's trial

Did the White House try to cover up for Karl Rove, who had tipped a columnist to an undercover agent's identity?
Was a vice presidential aide sacrificed to save Rove?
These intriguing questions, and more, have been raised by lawyers for Lewis "Scooter" Libby, now on trial in Washington on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
But here's another question: So what? True or not, those scenarios can't help the jury with the only question it must answer:
Did Libby, former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, purposefully lie to the FBI and to a grand jury about whether he told reporters where the agent worked?
The prosecution and the defense both offer fascinating tales. In neither does the White House come off looking good.
The defense offers more internecine plotting, more details and context. Libby was scapegoated for Rove, chief political strategist for the president, who "had to be protected," defense lawyer Theodore Wells told the jury this week.
However titillating that notion, the only way it could help Libby is to make the story line so convoluted that the prosecutor's black-and-white facts become too gray to support a guilty verdict.
Maybe the Rove-Libby plot is meant to elicit sympathy for Libby. There is Libby, an earnest, hard-working public servant, as a victim of the big, bad Rove.
Some sympathy
It is hard not to feel some sympathy. No charges were brought against the now admitted leakers-in-chief, Rove and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. They never got snared by the criminal investigation that their contacts with journalists prompted in the first place.
Unable to make a case that the leaks themselves broke the law, authorities caught Libby (and, presumably, only Libby) in what seemed to be prosecutable lies.
All of this drama opened in January 2003 when U.S. President George W. Bush, while building a case for invading Iraq, cited a report that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Africa. Soon Joseph Wilson IV a former ambassador, came forward in news accounts to say the uranium report was a fraud.
First as an unnamed source and then in his own, full- throated voice, Wilson offered reason to believe that the White House, and especially Cheney, had been told the uranium report was wrong before Bush referred to it in his State of the Union speech.
"We could talk about whether the administration manipulated intelligence," Wells told the jury. But "Vice President Cheney didn't know anything about Wilson."
"Was he mad" at Wilson's charges? Wells asked jurors. "You doggone betcha."
So Cheney told Libby to find out what this Wilson thing was about and to rebut the allegations.
The best the administration could do was to cast aspersions on the fact-finding trip Wilson had made to Niger for the CIA before Bush's speech, when he determined that the uranium report was phony. Apparently, to make the Niger assignment seem less professional, administration officials leaked to reporters that the trip had been urged by Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, who worked at the CIA. Undercover, as it happens.
Once the criminal leak investigation began, Armitage quietly confessed to prosecutors that he had tipped columnist Robert Novak, the first to identify the ambassador's wife as an agent. It would later turn out that Rove had been a source on the story, too.
But when reporters in September 2003 asked whether Rove leaked the identity, then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "There is simply no truth to that suggestion. And I have spoken with Karl about it."
(Fortunately for Rove and McClellan, it isn't a crime to lie to a press secretary or to the press.)
Did Libby lie?
McClellan declined to clear Libby or anyone else, prompting Libby to fear a set-up, his lawyers say. He complained to Cheney, who was irate about the whole thing, too, according to Wells, quoting from what he said was a hand-written note by Cheney.
"Not going to protect one staffer (meaning Rove, Wells said) + sacrifice the guy (meaning Libby) that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder (meaning the press) because of the incompetence of others," meaning the CIA, which Cheney blamed for letting the faulty uranium claim into Bush's speech.
Intriguing? Yes. but where do the plots and paranoia take us? The jury must still judge Libby's sworn testimony, decide if it was materially wrong and, if so, determine whether he knew it was wrong.
The issue is whether Libby lied when he testified that Tim Russert of NBC and Matt Cooper of Time magazine, in separate conversations, had told him they had heard Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. They wanted confirmation, and Libby didn't give it, according to his grand jury testimony. Libby didn't have any knowledge of her employment at the time, he testified.
But Russert and Cooper each recall their conversations with Libby as quite different. And the prosecution has government witnesses who began testifying this week that Libby had been fully informed about Ms. Wilson's work before he spoke with either journalist.
If Libby and his lawyers hope to titillate with their West Wing saga, fine. It's good stuff and worthy of a public airing.
If they hope to exonerate their client, the better defense lies in his lawyer's other argument: Libby was victimized, not by Rove, but by his own poor memory and that of others.
More relevant? Yes. And more boring.
Ann Woolner is a columnist for Bloomberg News.


Updated : 2021-04-10 22:44 GMT+08:00