WASHINGTON — Nine potential jurors were interviewed - and three of them dismissed after being asked their opinions of the Bush Administration - in the first day of the perjury and obstruction trial against former White House aide "Scooter" Libby.
I. Lewis Libby, who served as an adviser to President Bush and chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is accused of lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters regarding outed CIA officer Valerie Plame. Her identity was leaked to reporters in 2003 after her husband criticized the Bush administration's prewar intelligence on Iraq.
"Do any of you have feelings or opinions about the Bush administration or any of its policies or actions, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to give a former member of the Bush administration a fair trial?" U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton asked a panel of about 60 potential jurors.
Of the nine potential jurors interviewed, six were asked to return Wednesday and three were dismissed.
Of the those three, one woman was let go after being asked about her views of the Bush administration. She answered, "I am completely without objectivity. Nothing they can say or do would make me think anything positive about them."
A male financial analyst was also dismissed after he told the defense he would not be able to put Vice President Dick Cheney on the same footing as other witnesses. "I don't have the highest opinion of him, the potential juror said, “He has done a lot for the country, but I don't think it would process what I think of him."
When ask if he would be able to separate in his mind the negative feelings he has for Cheney, the man replied, “In some subjective way maybe. I don't know about Mr. Libby, as I know about Mr. Cheney."
When asked about the Bush administration use of prewar intelligence, he answered, "I don't think they intentionally tried to mislead. The intel they used was the most convenient for their cause. Freeing Iraq from tyranny was not the first thing. Weapons of mass destruction sold the American public. It was a scary thought."
A third juror, a female, was dismissed because she is a freelance photographer and could not afford to spend six weeks at trial. The judge said he will have her called again for a shorter case.
Questioning the jurors
All the prospective jurors were asked 38 questions by the presiding judge, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, in an effort to narrow the pool. The questions ranged from opinions about Bush administration officials - like Vice President Dick Cheney, who is expected to testify at the trial - to their opinions of the news media.
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Cheney is expected to be a key defense witness. Presidential historians believe it would be the first time a sitting vice president testified in a criminal case.
The judge asked the pool of jurors if they believed the news media and felt that they are credible. But the judge did not specially ask jurors about the Iraq war. Questions about the war and pre-war intelligence were pointedly asked by Libby's defense attorneys.
The judge also asked the jury pool if they would have any difficulty fairly judging the believability of former or present members of the Bush administration.
Walton asked, "Do any of you have any feelings or opinions about Vice President Cheney, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to be fair in this case or that might affect your ability to fairly judge Vice President Cheney's believability?"
After the group was asked the 38 questions, each juror was then scheduled to take the stand for follow-up questions from defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judge.
William Jeffress, one of Libby's attorneys, asked a juror if the vice president misled the nation of pre-war intelligence leading up to the war. The juror responded that she was not sure if that was the case.
In the process known as voire dire, lawyers and the judge posed questions to potential jurors.
Among other jurors' responses:
There was also extensive questioning about issues relating to the presumption of innocence.
News media credibility
The believability of the news media was also significant part of the questions to the potential jurors were asked to answer.
"Would any of you have any difficulty fairly judging the believability of a person who is a member of the news media?" asked Walton.
Jurors were asked specifically if they had watched NBC's "Meet the Press" or had an opinion of moderator Tim Russert.
(MSNBC.com is owned, in part, by NBC News.)
At the White House Tuesday, press secretary Tony Snow declined to discuss the case. Asked about the possibility of a presidential pardon for Libby, he replied, "I'm not aware of any discussions about a pardon."
The leak of Plame's identity touched off a political scandal and an FBI investigation that Libby is accused of obstructing. Attorneys for both sides want to know how closely potential jurors have been following the case.
Walton prohibited jurors from reading newspapers, watching TV news or listening to the radio. He said court officials would screen newspapers and provide jurors with edited copies to read.
After the group was asked 38 questions, each juror was then scheduled to take the stand for follow-up questions from defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judge.
Twelve jurors along with four alternates will be chosen from the pool of 100 possible jurors. Once the jury pool has been narrowed to 36, Judge Walton will check the criminal backgrounds of those potential jurors before lawyers make their final selections.
Fitzgerald requested the background checks because, during his prosecution of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, two jurors were replaced because they had police records. Defense attorneys are using that to challenge Ryan's conviction and Fitzgerald doesn't want to face the same problem in the Libby case.
Walton expects jury selection to take two to three days and if a jury is seated by Thursday, has scheduled opening arguments to begin next Monday. The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.
A glimpse of the inside
The trial should give the public glimpses of how administration insiders responded to a high-level critic -- former ambassador Joseph Wilson -- who claimed the president and his closest advisers distorted intelligence and lied to push the nation into war with Iraq.
The case won't assess blame for the leak itself, however. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has acknowledged being the original leaker, has not been charged.
Libby plans to be his own star witness. He says he didn't lie to investigators.
During the Plame scandal and the FBI investigation, he says, he was dealing with terrorist threats, the war in Iraq and emerging nuclear programs in Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. He says those overshadowed the Plame issue and clouded his memory about how and when he learned Plame's identity.
NBC producer Joel Seidman and Kelly O'Donnell contributed to this story.
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