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Court hears grand jury testimony

I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's words three years ago contradict what officials have said at his perjury trial.

February 06, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a federal grand jury three years ago that he did not believe he had discussed the wife of an administration critic with officials from the CIA and the State Department, contradicting sworn testimony by the officials at Libby's perjury trial here.

The revelation came Monday as prosecutors began playing audiotapes of Libby's eight hours of testimony before a grand jury investigating how the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame became public.

The transcript of Libby's two grand jury appearances in March 2004 also shows that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald explored early on whether President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were involved in the circumstances leading to the disclosure of Plame's identity as a CIA employee.

Libby told the grand jury that Cheney was the first to tell him, in June 2003, that the wife of former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV worked in the arms-proliferation division of the CIA. But the vice president's former chief of staff denied that his boss had instructed him to pass on information about Wilson's wife to anyone else.

Fitzgerald then asked Libby whether he or Cheney had ever discussed with Bush the criticism from Wilson that was beginning to surface in media reports. He said he had not.

Plame's identity was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert Novak on July 14, 2003, eight days after an opinion article by Wilson in the New York Times charged that the Bush administration had twisted intelligence reports about then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's interest in obtaining uranium yellowcake from the African nation of Niger.

At the CIA's request, Wilson had investigated those claims the previous year. Although he found them to be without merit, a 16-word section of Bush's 2003 State of the Union address asserted that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Africa.

In May 2003, a New York Times op-ed columnist disputed the accuracy of that section. He wrote that "the vice president's office had asked for an investigation of the uranium deal" more than a year earlier, and that an unnamed ambassador had traveled to Africa and reported that the allegations were baseless.

Prosecutors contend that Plame's identity was disclosed as part of an effort to discredit her husband by suggesting that the trip to Africa came only because his wife worked at the CIA.

Under federal law, it can be a crime to intentionally disclose the status of a covert CIA employee, and Fitzgerald was asked by the Justice Department to determine whether that law had been broken. No one has been charged with that crime. The only charges filed have been against Libby, on perjury and obstruction of justice counts.

The audiotape of the grand jury proceedings is the first time that the jury in Libby's trial has heard from the defendant in any form. His words directly contradict the testimony last month of former CIA official Robert Grenier and former State Department Undersecretary Marc Grossman. Both said they had told Libby that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

On the audiotape, Libby told the grand jury that he could not recall discussing Wilson's wife with either official.

"I, I don't recall," he said, asked specifically by Fitzgerald whether Grossman had told him about Wilson's wife.

"You have no memory of that whatsoever?" Fitzgerald said.

"Sorry, sir, I don't," Libby replied.

Fitzgerald also quizzed Libby about a series of notes he took while talking on the phone with Cheney on or about June 12, 2003.

Libby said that Cheney was giving him a series of talking points on rebutting Wilson's contentions, including a suggestion that the vice president had authorized the trip and should have known what was learned.

Cheney did mention that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, Libby told the grand jury, adding that he did not attach much significance to the disclosure.

The vice president "said to me in sort of an offhand manner, as a curiosity, that his wife worked at the CIA," Libby testified.

"Was he curious about it in a sort of negative way?" Fitzgerald asked. "Did he think that was sort of odd that a former ambassador's wife worked ... at the CIA?"

"I wouldn't say negative, but I would say it was a fact ... not everybody's wife works there," Libby responded. "So it was a new fact, that's all."

Libby said he did not believe that Cheney wanted him to leak word about Wilson's wife to the press.

"Was there a reason?" Fitzgerald asked.

"No. It just wasn't a particularly powerful point compared to the other points. I didn't understand it to be a point worth mentioning in that context," Libby replied.

Fitzgerald has said that Libby lied to the grand jury and to federal investigators to cover up his concern that he had leaked classified information about Plame to reporters.

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