WASHINGTON — I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, will in part base his defense on the claim that Cheney instructed and encouraged Libby to share classified information with reporters, sources familiar with the case tell NBC News.
Libby's attorneys discussed the matter with prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and the judge in the case in a recent conference call, the sources confirmed. An attorney for Libby flatly denied that version of events.
Series of letters released
A cryptic reference to the conference call and the alleged Cheney role emerged a few days ago when a series of letters between Fitzgerald and Libby lawyer John D. Cline were released by the court.
Cline wrote to Fitzgerald, “As we discussed during our telephone conversation, Mr. Libby testified in the grand jury that he had contact with reporters in which he disclosed the content of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in the course of his interaction with reporters in June and July 2003. ... We also note that it is our understanding that Mr. Libby testified that he was authorized to disclose information about the NIE to the press by his superiors.”
But Bill Jeffress, a Libby attorney, said in a statement: “There is no truth at all to the story that Mr. Libby’s lawyers have advised the Court or the Special Counsel that he will raise a defense based on authorization by superiors. Indeed, there has never been any conference call between Mr. Libby's defense lawyers and Judge Walton. We do not know who reporters are relying on as sources for this story, but any such persons are neither knowledgeable nor authorized to speak for Mr. Libby's defense team.”
The case against Libby stems from the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity 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. A year earlier, the CIA had sent Wilson to Africa to determine the accuracy of the uranium reports. A year earlier, the CIA had sent Wilson to Africa to determine the accuracy of the uranium reports.
Bush made his case for going to war against Iraq in part on the uranium allegations, claiming that Saddam Hussein was trying to build weapons of mass destruction.
Authorization crucial to defense
Legal sources close to the defense indicated the authorization to discuss classified information by superiors, including Cheney, will be a crucial part of Libby's defense. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the case hasn't gone to trial yet.
At the moment, Libby's defense team and Fitzgerald are battling over access to pretrial evidence and classified information. Libby has said that certain classified documents are essential to his defense.
Fitzgerald says the classified documents are irrelevant to whether Libby lied to the grand jury about conversations with reporters. Libby is trying to make the argument that without the classified documents, his due process rights are being violated and therefore the case should be dismissed. The refusal of the White House to turn over the documents could lead to the case’s being thrown out.
However, most lawyers contacted by NBC News have called Libby's arguments “thin” and suggest it is highly unlikely that U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton would agree to throw out the case. And lawyers also told NBC News that prosecutors have made a strong case as to why the classified documents irrelevant.
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The attorneys also spoke condition of anonymity because the case hasn't gone to trial.
Judge’s rulings expected soon
A ruling from Walton is expected within two weeks.
In their indictment of Libby, prosecutors stated that Cheney may have instructed Libby or been involved in the Plame leak.
According to the indictment, on June 12, 2003, Cheney told Libby that Plame worked at the CIA. On July 12, the indictment says, Cheney gave Libby advice on Air Force Two about how to handle the Plame matter. Later that day, Libby allegedly spoke about Plame with two reporters.
Libby has not been charged with breaking laws by speaking to reporters Plame. He was indicted on Oct. 28 on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements during the course of the investigation.
On Thursday afternoon, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., issued a statement saying that any implication of Cheney as the one who authorized release of classified information would require Bush to honor his promise to “clean house” of anyone who had anything to do with the Plame leak.
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