WASHINGTON — Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's defense in his perjury trial relies on his contention that he was made a scapegoat to protect White House political strategist Karl Rove from charges of leaking the name of a CIA officer.
But that assertion was dealt a blow Thursday, when jurors were shown videotapes from 2003 of White House spokesman Scott McClellan telling reporters that Libby was not the source of the leak.
"There's no evidence of an effort to throw him under the bus," prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald told U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, arguing -- in the absence of the jury -- that the tapes should be played.
Libby is accused of lying to investigators probing whether government officials illegally disclosed the identity of CIA arms-proliferation specialist Valerie Plame in the summer of 2003, soon after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, accused the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence in Iraq.
His lawyers have told the jury that Libby, who was then chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, feared he was being made a scapegoat to shield Rove, one of President Bush's most trusted advisors, from legal problems.
But that argument, Fitzgerald told Walton on Thursday, was undercut by the fact that McClellan told reporters that Libby wasn't involved in the leak. Over the objections of Libby's lawyers, Walton allowed the prosecution to play brief excerpts of the tapes.
McClellan ardently defended the White House during a series of briefings in early October 2003. At the time, the Justice Department was just beginning a criminal investigation into the leak, and questions were swirling about the possible involvement of administration insiders. McClellan initially told reporters that Rove had engaged in no misconduct, but the spokesman declined to be drawn into a discussion of the possible roles of others.
Libby, his lawyers have said, saw that initial reluctance as a sign that unnamed officials were conspiring to have him take the fall so Rove would emerge unscathed. Libby complained to Cheney, the lawyers have said, and a few days later McClellan changed his message, exonerating Libby and a third White House official as well as Rove.
"I spoke with those individuals ... and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this," McClellan told reporters Oct. 10. When asked what "this" was, he replied: "The leaking of classified information."
On Thursday, Walton questioned defense lawyer Theodore Wells about the scapegoat theory, asking how, given the videos, "you make out a case that somehow the White House was putting his head on a platter.... I don't understand how that connection is going to be made."
Fitzgerald has alleged that Libby was involved in helping craft McClellan's language. But he noted that the statement publicly clearing Libby also put him in a private bind: Libby was concerned that he had leaked classified information about Plame, so he set out to construct a story that would insulate him from being charged with that crime, Fitzgerald said.
During his first interview with the FBI, which came four days after McClellan's last mention of the leak, Libby told investigators that he had discussed Plame with journalists and others, but he said that he was only passing on information he had heard from reporters, including Tim Russert of NBC News.
In fact, the government has alleged that Libby heard about Plame from a number of official sources -- initially from Cheney himself, as well as from officials from the CIA and the State Department. Unlike passing along tips from reporters, passing along tips about Plame from official sources could constitute a crime.
"He has got to tell a story consistent with what the White House has told the world," Fitzgerald said Thursday. "He is locked in with his feet planted in cement.
"The cleanest way to take himself off the hook is to say, 'I heard it from reporters,' that 'I did not know it was true.' "
Wells has said that Libby did not lie at all, and that any misstatements to investigators were the product of memory lapses and the stress of his involvement in life-and-death national security issues.
After playing snippets of the videotapes for the jury, Fitzgerald called an FBI agent, Deborah Bond, to the stand to recount details of two interviews Libby gave to investigators.
According to Bond, Libby acknowledged that Cheney had told him in a phone conversation around June 12, 2003, that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, but Libby added that he had forgotten the conversation by the time he talked with journalists about Plame a few weeks later.
Bond testified that Libby also said that he and Cheney may have discussed telling reporters that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, but that he could not be sure.
And, she added, "Mr. Libby told us he believed that the vice president had learned this information from the [then-]director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet."
The trial is adjourned until Monday. The government is expected to call Russert before resting its case early next week.