WASHINGTON — As White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer was known for staying strictly on message, the public face of an administration reluctant to acknowledge mistakes or internal rifts.
But Fleischer was behind a different microphone Monday: He spent hours testifying in federal court on what it was like behind the scenes in 2003 when a key part of the Bush administration's case for war with Iraq disintegrated.
During more than three hours of testimony that offered a rare glimpse inside the usually secretive Bush White House, Fleischer showed little of the unyielding discipline that defined his tenure as press secretary. He pointed fingers at a former colleague, acknowledged frustration at how powerless he often was to sway the media, and described in detail the frantic White House efforts to contain a spreading public relations debacle.
Fleischer was the main prosecution witness Monday in the ongoing trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby stands accused of lying to federal authorities investigating the White House's role in exposing the identity of a clandestine CIA officer.
At one point Fleischer described the dismay he felt as it became increasingly clear that the White House could no longer back one of President Bush's most alarming remarks in his 2003 State of the Union speech -- that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium from Africa.
After initially clinging to the claim, Fleisher said he was told that "the ground might be shifting" and that the credibility of his previous statements on the matter was crumbling. "The worst place to stand as White House press secretary," Fleischer said, "is when the ground is shifting."
Fleischer testified after being granted immunity by prosecutors, and his accounts could be damaging to Libby's defense. The former White House spokesman said he first learned of the CIA officer's identity from Libby, three days before Libby claims he heard the officer's name from news reporters. The CIA officer, Valerie Plame, is married to former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Iraq war whom the administration was trying to discredit.
But in some ways the legal significance of Fleischer's testimony was overshadowed by the insider account he provided into the administration's handling of the unraveling of its case for war with Iraq.
That unraveling accelerated July 6, 2003, when Wilson disclosed in a newspaper column that he had been sent by the U.S. government to Niger in 2002 to investigate the uranium claim and found it baseless -- about 11 months before Bush repeated the allegation in the State of the Union address.
At first, Fleischer said, he tried to contain the damage by telling reporters that Wilson's account amounted to "Zero. Nada. Nothing new there."
White House officials hoped the story would die after acknowledging problems with the Niger claim and admitting the day after Wilson's column appeared that it "did not rise to the level" of a mention in a State of the Union address. Instead, Fleischer said, "that basically started the controversy and made it flame up and become the dominant issue."
During a five-day trip to Africa that same week, Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the Niger claim had been cleared by the CIA, something the agency vigorously disputed. "Had the director of Central Intelligence wanted those words out," she said, "they would have come out."
Fleischer said that only opened a new front in the fight. "The White House seems to be blaming the CIA," he said, noting that he called the agency's press office to tell them about Rice's remarks, and that the agency's public affairs director at the time, Bill Harlow, "was not happy."
Nor was Fleischer happy with the news coverage the next day. "Nothing close to it," he said. "The whole trip was mired in controversy about those 16 words," referring to the sentence in the president's State of the Union speech.
Fleischer said he doubted that the tip Libby gave him -- that Plame, not the White House, had sent her husband to Niger -- would mean much to reporters, who were more focused on the question of whether Bush had known the Niger claim was false than on who was behind Wilson's trip. But Fleischer said he gave it a try. At an event where young Ugandan children with AIDS were to sing to Bush, Fleischer said, he sidled up to a small group of reporters to mention the Wilson-CIA connection.
The reporters barely blinked.
"It was a big so what," Fleischer said. "It was like a lot of things that I said to the press. It had no impact."
Eventually, the tip about the connection between Plame and Wilson found a taker: Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage mentioned the couple to syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who named Plame in a July 14, 2003, article. Although Armitage has admitted being Novak's source, he has not been charged with any crime.
Fleischer, whose testimony has concluded, often appeared more affable on the witness stand than he did during his two-plus years behind the lectern at the White House press room. He smiled toward jurors after being sworn in, and frequently touched his fingertips in the manner of a trained public speaker. His few displays of testiness came mainly during cross-examination by Libby's lawyers.
Fleischer left the White House in 2003 to launch his own communications consulting business. He got a farewell letter from Libby dated July 10 saying that he would be missed and that "we will still count on you to come to our rescue whenever the going gets tough."
As he testified against Libby Monday, Fleischer avoided eye contact with his former colleague.