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Defense Says Libby Was `Sacrificed'

January 24, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby feared that White House officials were conspiring to make him the fall guy in the CIA leak scandal to protect political strategist Karl Rove, Libby's lawyer argued Tuesday.

In his opening remarks at Libby's perjury and obstruction trial, defense attorney Theodore Wells Jr. portrayed the former vice presidential aide as a sympathetic figure who was following his boss' orders to rebut an administration critic.

But Wells said Libby came to believe that he had lost the support of the administration he had sought to defend.

"Karl Rove was President Bush's right-hand person in terms of political strategy. Karl Rove was the person most responsible that the Republican Party stayed in office. His fate was important to the Republican Party. He had to be protected," Wells said.

"The person who was to be sacrificed, that's Scooter Libby," Wells said. "The person whose neck had been put in the meat grinder, you'll learn, was Scooter Libby."

Vice President Dick Cheney was concerned that his chief of staff might be unjustly tarred, Wells said, producing an excerpt from a note handwritten by Cheney: "Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald offered a sharply different portrait of the defendant, saying that Libby had obstructed the search for the truth to protect his boss. Fitzgerald said Libby assiduously gathered information about an outspoken critic of the administration's Iraq policy, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, and his wife, Valerie Plame, from various officials and then discussed the findings with journalists in a series of conversations.

Libby is charged with five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his descriptions of those conversations to FBI agents and a federal grand jury. The trial is expected to last up to six weeks and promises testimony from Cheney and such high-profile journalists as Judith Miller, then a reporter for the New York Times; "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert of NBC News; and Matthew Cooper, then of Time magazine.

The defense suggestion of a high-level conspiracy, made on the opening day of the trial, was the first indication of a breach within the normally secretive White House over the handling of a case that had cast a legal and political cloud over the Bush administration for three years.

Wells did not identify the officials who might have been involved. But he set the stage for a broad attack on some witnesses the government plans to call, saying they were not credible.

One of them, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, had initially asserted his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in the case and had agreed to cooperate with federal investigators only after being granted immunity, Wells said. He also indicated that he plans to challenge the testimony of three journalists who are key to the government case.

The investigation that resulted in Libby's indictment grew out of the revelation by syndicated columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003, that Plame worked for the CIA. Eight days earlier, the New York Times had published an op-ed article by Wilson accusing Bush of misleading the public in his 2003 State of the Union address.

Bush had asserted that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had sought nuclear material in Africa -- a contention Wilson had investigated for the CIA in 2002 and rejected.

Novak's column disclosed that "Wilson's wife" worked for the CIA on weapons of mass destruction. It suggested that Wilson's 2002 trip to Africa was due to nepotism, calling into question the credibility of his findings.

In July, Novak revealed Rove was one of the "administration sources" who confirmed Plame worked at the CIA but added he did not initially learn about her from Rove. No charges have been filed against Bush's top political aide. Libby has denied giving information about Plame to the journalists, but the journalists say he did exactly that.

Disclosing the identity of a covert agent can be a felony under federal law. But Libby did not know, Wells said, that Plame had worked undercover, and he considered her a footnote in a broader dispute with her husband.

Wells foreshadowed his defense Tuesday with a sympathetic portrayal of Libby as an influential Cheney loyalist who, on the command of his boss, took on an effort to talk with reporters to rebut allegations by Wilson that the administration had twisted prewar intelligence.

He conceded the possibility that his client may have not told the truth to investigators but said it was not deliberate. Rather, he said, it was because Libby was preoccupied with such weighty matters as a daily stream of terrorism threats, rumors of presidential assassination plots, and nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran.

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