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The Nation

Witness Firm In Disputing Libby On Leak

January 30, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer testified Monday that he learned the identity of a CIA operative from then-vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby over lunch at the White House on July 7, 2003 -- three days before Libby has said he first heard about Valerie Plame.

Fleischer was the fifth government witness in the perjury and obstruction trial to contradict Libby's account, but unlike the fuzzy recollections of some previous witnesses, his testimony was firm and specific.

The former presidential spokesman, testifying under a grant of immunity, said that Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, appeared to know that he was passing along sensitive information. "I believe he mentioned her name and said something like, 'This is hush-hush, this is on the q.t., not very many people know this,' " Fleischer said.

His testimony appeared to aid the government's attempt to depict Libby as stealthily exchanging information about Plame as part of a campaign to discredit her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, an administration war critic.

The lunch came one day after the New York Times published an op-ed article by Wilson that accused the White House of twisting the intelligence it used to go to war in Iraq. Wilson wrote of his findings from his 2002 CIA-sponsored trip to Niger, which he said contradicted claims by President Bush in the 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons material in that country.

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said in his Jan. 28, 2003, address, a sentence that has become known as "the 16 words."

Plame attracted White House attention apparently because the White House believed she was involved in the CIA decision to send her husband to Niger, and therefore nepotism questions might be used to discredit Wilson. Wilson said in his op-ed article that Cheney was responsible for sending him to Africa, which the White House denied.

Plame's identity was first made public by syndicated columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003, but Libby was not the source of the tip. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage has admitted that he mentioned Plame and Wilson to Novak, but he has not been charged with a crime. Libby is charged with lying and obstructing the investigation into the source of the leak.

Prosecutors allege that Libby lied when he told investigators that he first learned about Plame through reporters, including a July 10, 2003, conversation with NBC "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert.

Fleischer joined a series of government witnesses who have testified at the trial as having discussed Plame's CIA employment with Libby up to a month earlier.

The government's second witness Monday also depicted Libby as quietly orchestrating a campaign to discredit Wilson. David S. Addington, another member of Cheney's staff, testified that Libby had asked him whether a paper trail might exist to document trips taken by spouses of CIA employees. Addington said that though Libby did not mention Wilson or Plame in particular, he assumed he was referring to their case.

Addington, now Cheney's chief of staff, said that during the conversation, Libby "extended his hands out and pushed them down" as if to caution Addington to keep his voice down. After that, he said, Libby disappeared into Cheney's office.

Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is next expected to call three journalists who said they had conversations with Libby about Plame. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller is set to testify today.

Fleischer said he learned of Plame's employment at a lunch he and Libby had arranged to mark the fact that Fleischer was leaving the White House for the private sector about a week later. "We talked a little bit about sports, talked football. We're both fans of the same football team, the Miami Dolphins," he said.

Then they discussed the Wilson article; "I don't know if I or Libby brought it up," Fleischer said.

Libby "reiterated that the vice president did not send Ambassador Wilson to Niger, which I had heard previously from his staff," Fleischer said. "He then went on to continue to say that Ambassador Wilson was sent by his wife, and that his wife works at the CIA."

Fleischer also recalled that Libby told him Plame worked in the agency's arms proliferation division, and that Libby even mentioned her by name.

Fleischer said he then had no reason to believe that Plame was an undercover operative, and said the conversation was not prefaced by the normal warnings that come with a briefing on classified information. Fleischer described Libby's tone as "very matter-of-fact" but said Libby also indicated that the information was not widely known. The information "was news to me" and was "the first time I had ever heard it," Fleischer said.

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