WASHINGTON — Top White House officials tried to blame vice presidential aide "Scooter" Libby for the 2003 leak of a CIA operative's identity to protect President Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove, Libby's defense attorney said Tuesday as his perjury trial began and the first witness took the stand.
I. Lewis Libby is accused of lying to FBI agents, who began investigating after syndicated columnist Robert Novak revealed that a chief Bush administration critic, Joseph Wilson, was married to CIA operative Valerie Plame.
When the leak investigation was launched, White House officials cleared Rove of wrongdoing but stopped short of doing so for Libby. Libby, who had been asked to counter Wilson's criticisms, felt betrayed and sought out his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, Wells said.
"They're trying to set me up. They want me to be the sacrificial lamb," attorney Theodore Wells said, recalling Libby's end of the conversation. "I will not be sacrificed so Karl Rove can be protected."
White House infighting
Rove was one of two sources for Novak's story. The other was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Nobody, including Rove and Armitage, has been charged with the leak. Libby is accused of lying to investigators and obstructing the probe into the leak.
Cheney's notes from that meeting underscore Libby's concern, Wells said.
"Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder," the note said, according to Wells.
The description of the White House infighting was a rare glimpse into the secretive workings of Bush's inner circle. It also underscores how hectic and stressful the White House had become when the probe was launched.
By pointing the finger at Rove, whom he referred to as "the lifeblood of the Republican party," Wells sought to cast Libby as a scapegoat.
"He is an innocent man and he has been wrongly and unjustly and unfairly accused," Wells said.
The first witness
Marc Grossman, the former under secretary of state, was the first person to be called to the witness stand by prosecutors. Grossman is said to have advised Libby on June 12, 2003 that former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and helped arrange for his fact-finding trip to Niger. Defense attorneys have called him "a critical witness for the government."
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Grossman according to prosecutors is one of the first officials to tell Libby that Wilson's wife was employed by the CIA and had a role in the Niger trip.
Fitzgerald said Tuesday that Cheney also told Libby about Wilson's wife working at the CIA in early June.
Libby has told FBI investigators and a grand jury that he first learned Plame's identity from NBC Washington Bureau Tim Russert, in a conversation on July 10 or 11, 2003. Russert has testified that Plame never came up in their talk.
(MSNBC.com is owned, in part, by NBC News.)
Libby is charged with five felony counts. He allegedly obstructed an investigation into the leaking of C-I-A officer Valerie Plame's identity in 2003 and lied to the F-B-I and a grand jury.
Wilson's Africa trip
The June-July 2003 time period is crucial to the charges brought against Libby.
In the spring of 2003, two newspaper articles reported on a trip by a former ambassador to Africa sponsored by the C.I.A. to check reports that Iraq was seeking enriched uranium to help with its nuclear arms program.
Neither article identified the ambassador, but it was known inside the government that he was Joseph C. Wilson IV, Valerie Plame Wilson's husband. White House officials wanted to know how much of a role she had in selecting him for the assignment.
In May 2003, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was first to write that an unnamed ambassador traveled to Niger to investigate uranium sales. The envoy, Kristof wrote, reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
Fitzgerald contends that the Kristof column sparked a frenzy of queries from the office of the vice president to both the State Department and the CIA about ambassador Wilson and who arranged his trip.
The defense's approach
The prosecution says Grossman recalls telling Libby that "Joe Wilson's wife works for the CIA" and that "our people say that she was involved in the organization of the trip."
Ted Wells, Libby's may take aim at Grossman, and cast doubt on the accuracy of any testimony by Grossman, who is identified as a longtime friend and traveling partner of Wilson's, suggesting they are biased against Libby because of their connections to one another and to Wilson.
The defense says that Grossman was visited by the state department's second in command Richard Armitage, the night before his interview with the FBI.
Armitage admitted this summer that he was the first to reveal Plame to columnist Robert Novak.
Ted Well's says Armitage told Grossman that he spoke to Novak and he already told the FBI about Novak. Wells says "this is cooking the books"
Wells said Grossman and Wilson went to college and came up through the ranks of the State Department together.
Tuesday's testimony ended with Grossman still on the stand. He is expected to resume his testimony on Wednesday, when the court resumes at 9:30am ET.
Sorting conflicting statements
As the trial opened with a preview of each side's position, it was clear that the jury will be tasked with sorting through conflicting statements in a high-profile case that has opened a very public window on the behind-the-scenes Washington practice of leaking sensitive information to the news media.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told a far different story from Wells. He described for jurors a Bush administration effort to beat back early criticism of the Iraq war and accused Libby of lying to investigators about his role in that campaign.
Using a computerized calendar during opening statement, Fitzgerald described a tumultuous week in 2003 when he said the White House was under "direct attack" from Wilson.
Fitzgerald said Libby learned from five people -- from Cheney to members of the CIA and State Department -- that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Libby discussed that fact to reporters and others in the White House, Fitzgerald said.
"But when the FBI and grand jury asked about what the defendant did," Fitzgerald said, "he made up a story."
Memory or lying?
Libby told investigators he learned about Plame from NBC News reporter Tim Russert. But Fitzgerald told jurors that was clearly a lie because Libby had already been discussing the matter inside and outside of the White House.
"You can't learn something on Thursday that you're giving out on Monday," Fitzgerald said.
Libby says he didn't lie but was simply bogged down by national security issues and couldn't remember his conversations with New York Times report Judith Miller, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and Russert.
"He spends his day trying to connect the dots to be sure we don't have another 9/11," Wells said.
Opening statements were expected to continue into Tuesday afternoon. The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.
NBC's Joel Seidman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.