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Political theater awaited at Libby trial

The CIA leak case promises a rare glimpse into the White House.

January 16, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — By his own account, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was a very busy man on July 10, 2003.

That day, according to his calendar, he had a senior staff meeting; an intelligence briefing with his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney; a CIA briefing; and lunch with Cheney and then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

He was reviewing more than a dozen terrorist threats and checking up on trouble spots around the globe, such as the ouster of Liberian president Charles Taylor and North Korea's escalating plans for developing nuclear weapons.

Libby also had been busy talking with reporters about a CIA operative who was married to an emerging critic of the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq. On that day in July, he said he had one such conversation, with Tim Russert of NBC News.

Libby goes on trial in U.S. District Court here today, charged with lying to a grand jury about the conversations he had with Russert and other reporters and, in the process, obstructing a federal investigation.

His defense is a novel one: that he was so preoccupied with life-or-death affairs of state that it affected his ability to accurately recall events for federal investigators.

Prosecutors have a simpler explanation: He lied.

The "faulty memory defense," as U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton has called it, is just one intriguing aspect of what promises to be one of the most remarkable trials in Washington in years.

Expected to last six weeks, the trial is likely to provide a glimpse into how the White House responded to critics of its Iraq war policies. It will also include testimony from Cheney, marking the first time that a vice president has appeared in a criminal trial.

At a time when most high-profile Washington criminal defendants cop pleas to avoid the glare of the courtroom, the case should provide a rare display of political theater, a throwback to the days of Watergate and the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, which played out in the same federal courthouse where Libby's fate will be decided.

The politically charged case against Libby may be the closest thing that critics of the Bush administration ever get to a public trial dealing with the justifications for the Iraq war.

While Walton has made it clear that he intends to keep the case narrowly focused on questions of whether Libby lied, legal experts say it may be difficult for the jury to leave behind their feelings about the war.

Libby helped make the case for invading Iraq. Cheney is one of the most polarizing figures in the administration, even among Republicans. And the 12 jurors who will be selected starting today will be drawn from a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1.

"In most cases, politics are irrelevant. But this case is political," said Carolyn Koch, a Fairfax, Va., jury consultant. "People are so inflamed about the war in Iraq, and here they have a target in front of them. It is an opportunity to vent some anger.

"If I were Scooter Libby, I would be concerned. That does not mean you are guaranteed to be convicted. But it means you have an uphill battle."

The trial is the culmination of a three-year investigation that began with a July 14, 2003, article by syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

Novak took on former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had just written an op-ed piece in the New York Times that cast doubt over Bush's assertion in his 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein was seeking to acquire weapons-grade uranium from Niger. The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger in February 2002 to evaluate reports of sales of nuclear material. Novak suggested in his column that the trip was based on nepotism. Citing administration sources, he wrote that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA on weapons of mass destruction issues.

In December 2003, the Justice Department appointed U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald in Chicago as special counsel to investigate whether laws making it a crime to divulge the status of a covert operative were broken.

Fitzgerald turned up evidence that the White House was greatly concerned about Wilson, to the point that Bush declassified a national intelligence document to rebut claims the former envoy was making about Africa. The prosecutor also obtained evidence that other officials, including White House political director Karl Rove, had discussed Plame with journalists before her name was published.

But Fitzgerald never charged anyone with breaking the law that protects covert agents. And he continued to investigate even after learning early on who had leaked Plame's identity to Novak. That person, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, was not charged. Fitzgerald has not said why, although it could be because the law can be used only against someone who knowingly discloses the name of a covert agent whose identity officials are actively trying to protect.

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