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Gerald Herbert  /  AP
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, leaves federal court after a hearing in Washington on Friday.
NBC News and news services
updated 2/3/2006 5:44:51 PM ET 2006-02-03T22:44:51

A federal judge on Friday set former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s trial date for January 2007, two months after the midterm congressional elections.

The trial for Libby, who faces perjury and obstruction of justice charges, will begin with jury selection Jan. 8, said U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton. Walton said he had hoped to start the trial in September but one of Libby’s lawyers had a scheduling conflict that made an earlier date impossible.

Walton said he does not like “to have a case linger” but had no choice because Libby attorney Ted Wells will be tied up for 10 weeks in another case.

Libby, formerly chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, stopped for coffee and made small talk with reporters as he headed to a conference room on the second floor of the courthouse. Walton scheduled the hearing in part to determine what progress was being made in the case.

Wells said Libby’s defense team was “very happy” with the trial date. It “will permit us the time we need to prepare Mr. Libby’s defense,” he told reporters outside the courthouse.

“The defense will show that Mr. Libby is totally innocent, that he has not done anything wrong,” Wells continued, as Libby silently stood nearby. “And he looks forward to being totally vindicated by a jury.”

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald did not oppose the date during the hearing, and his team left the courthouse without commenting.

Reporters to be identified
The judge also told the lawyers that he wants them to identify soon the reporters that each side wants to testify at trial to avoid delays while news organizations fight the subpoenas.

So far, Libby’s lawyers have told Walton they want to seek notes and other documents from news organizations. But it was clear from the hearing that both sides expect to seek trial testimony from reporters.

Fitzgerald said both sides should know which reporters they want to subpoena by early spring.

Libby, 55, was indicted late last year on charges that he lied to FBI agents and a federal grand jury about how he learned CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity and when he subsequently told reporters.

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CIA operative Plame’s identity was published in July 2003 by columnist Robert Novak after her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence about Iraq’s efforts to buy uranium “yellowcake” in Niger. The year before, the CIA had sent Wilson to Africa to determine the accuracy of the uranium reports.

Walton did not hear arguments on motions that Libby’s lawyers have filed over disputes they have with Fitzgerald. Instead, the judge set a series of deadlines for additional motions and scheduled future hearings, the first on Feb. 24.

Libby strategy outlined
In only a few filings so far, Libby’s lawyers have revealed a significant part of their strategy.

A key element is their contention that Libby may have been confused when he told FBI agents and the grand jury about his conversations with reporters for NBC, Time and The New York Times. But he didn’t lie, the lawyers plan to argue.

The defense attorneys maintain that Libby believed Plame’s employment by the CIA was common knowledge among reporters. To prove it, they want Walton to let them obtain notes kept by other reporters — besides the three identified in Libby’s indictment — so they can determine when journalists first heard about Plame and from whom.

The timeline of events remains unclear. On Friday, a federal appeals court unsealed eight pages of previously secret grand jury materials which show inconsistencies between Libby’s claims of when he discovered Plame’s identity and when others— including NBC’s Tim Russert and former presidential spokesperson Ari Fleischer— contend he was aware of it.

Contradicting claims
Fleischer says in the documents that Libby identified Plame in a meeting with him on July 7, 2003, “adding something along the lines of, you know, this is hush-hush, nobody knows about this.”

The notes show Libby maintains he first learned Plame’s identity in an interview on July 10 or 11, 2003, with NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. Russert, Libby said, told him, “Did you know that Ambassador Wilson’s wife works at the CIA? ... All the reporters know it.”

But notes from Libby’s CIA briefer from the month before indicate Libby referred to “Joe Wilson” and “Valerie Wilson,” the memos show.

Regardless, Russert, the released documents show, remembered the conversation differently, saying that stating as a fact that Plame worked for the CIA would have been “very significant” and a move he would have first discussed with NBC management.

Libby too busy with other business?
As part of their strategy, the defense also plans to show that Libby had his mind on more pressing government business and couldn’t be bothered with a plot — if one existed — to get even with Wilson by outing his wife.

The first half of Friday’s hourlong hearing was public, with a second segment held behind closed doors.

In the secret session, Walton was to begin setting deadlines for evaluating what currently classified evidence Libby will be allowed to present to a jury in open court.

Libby’s lawyers set the case on a dual track — one public, one secret — when they recently put the judge and prosecutors on notice that they want a jury to hear classified evidence.

Fitzgerald told the judge that he has turned over “99 percent” of the evidence he believes he is obligated to provide to the defense. Last night, he said, he gave 250 pages to the defense. An additional 800 pages were turned over Friday morning, Fitzgerald said.

But Wells said the prosecutor has “thousands and thousands and thousands” of pages of evidence that he has not provided to the defense. Wells said the defense will file its “core” motions, seeking those materials, in the coming weeks.

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

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