msnbc.com news services
updated 3/18/2006 6:32:22 PM ET 2006-03-18T23:32:22

Lawyers for Vice President Dick Cheney’s former top aide are suggesting they may delve deeply at his criminal trial into infighting among the White House, the CIA and the State Department over pre-Iraq war intelligence failures.

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New legal documents raise the potential that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s trial could turn into a political embarrassment for the Bush administration by focusing on whether the White House manipulated intelligence to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

In a court filing late Friday night, Libby’s legal team said that in June and July 2003, the status of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame was at most a peripheral issue to “the finger-pointing that went on within the executive branch about who was to blame” for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

“If the jury learns this background information” about finger-pointing, “and also understands Mr. Libby’s additional focus on urgent national security matters, the jury will more easily appreciate how Mr. Libby may have forgotten or misremembered ... snippets of conversation” about Plame’s status, the defense lawyers said.

According to its recent filing, Libby’s defense team wants prosecutors to turn over material they have about likely witnesses including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Others who are expected to testify include White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, former CIA director George Tenet and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the document says.

It suggests Libby’s team may try to pin blame on the State Department for the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity to the public after her husband criticized the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.

Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee told Vanity Fair magazine this week that it is reasonable to assume that Armitage told Post reporter Bob Woodward about Plame’s identity before other Bush administration officials mentioned her name to reporters.

Libby’s lawyers noted that there has been speculation that Armitage might also have told syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who was the first to make Plame’s identity public in a July 14, 2003, column.

“If the facts ultimately show that Mr. Armitage or someone else from the State Department was also Mr. Novak’s primary source, then the State Department (and certainly not Mr. Libby) bears responsibility for the ‘leak’ that led to the public disclosure of Ms. Wilson’s CIA identity,” Libby’s defense team wrote, referring to Plame by her married name.

Libby’s lawyers hope to demonstrate that he was too preoccupied with national security matters to accurately remember his conversations with reporters about Plame, and have sought access to reporters’ notes and top-secret security briefings to bolster their case.

Cheney’s former chief of staff was indicted Oct. 28 on five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about how he learned of Plame’s CIA employment and what he told reporters about her.

Knowingly disclosing the identity of a covert CIA agent is against the law. But so far no officials have been charged with leaking Plame’s identity to the news media in 2003.

Libby, set to go on trial in January 2007, faces charges of lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury during the investigation. Rove remains under investigation for making false statements.

Information from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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