WASHINGTON — Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified Monday that then-colleague I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told him over lunch that the wife of a prominent war critic worked at the CIA.
Fleischer said the conversation happened on Monday, July 7, 2003, the day after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's op-ed article appeared in the New York Times, and he was a guest on "Meet the Press," accusing the administration of "twisting" intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs. Libby -- according to prosecutors -- told Fleischer at lunch at the White House that the information that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA was "hush-hush."
That is the same day that the White House issued a statement saying that the "16 words" in the State of the Union address about Iraq seeking nuclear materials from Africa, should not have been included in the speech.
Fleischer was about to go overseas with the president and a number of other officials on an official delegation to various African countries. Fleischer would be traveling with the White House press corps on the trip.
July 7, 2003 was days before Libby told investigators he was surprised to learn about the CIA operative from a reporter. That discrepancy is at the heart of Libby's perjury and obstruction trial.
From Libby to Fleischer to NBC and Time?
Fleischer, who was the chief White House spokesman for the first 2 1/2 years of President Bush's first term, said Monday that Libby invited him to lunch to discuss Fleischer's planned departure from the White House. He said it was the first time he and Libby had eaten lunch together.
They talked about Fleischer's career plans and their shared interest in the Miami Dolphins football team, Fleischer testified. He can't remember who brought it up but he said the conversation then turned to the growing controversy over Wilson, who accused the White House of ignoring prewar intelligence on Iraq.
"Ambassador Wilson was sent by his wife," Fleischer recalled Libby saying. "His wife works for the CIA."
Fleischer said Libby also used the woman's name, Valerie Plame.
"My sense is that Mr. Libby was telling me this was kind of newsy," Fleischer said.
Fleischer also testified that while on a White House trip to Uganda on July 11, 2003, on the side of the road, he told NBC’s David Gregory and Time magazine’s John Dickerson, "If you want to know who sent ambassador Wilson to Niger, it was his wife, she works there" at the CIA.
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He added "[Never] in my wildest dreams would I have thought that information was classified."
Fleischer also said that the reporters he told did not seem very interested at the time about his revelation to them in Uganda.
'I was absolutely horrified'
After columnist Bob Novak's publicly identified CIA operative Valerie Plame - and after the CIA made a "criminal referral" asking the Justice department to launch a criminal investigation into the disclosure of Plame's identity - Fleischer said he saw the news while he was at home with his parents. Fleischer said he saw a story about the criminal referral and then went on-line and read a larger story on the Washington Post web site.
Asked what he was feeling at the moment, Fleischer testified, "I was absolutely horrified. I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, did I play a role in somehow outing a CIA operative... did I just do something that I could be in big trouble for.’"
Fleischer said he did not believe he had done anything criminal, but wasn't sure how his actions would be viewed. So, his next step, he said, "was to get counsel."
Fleischer's lawyers urged him to assert his 5th amendment rights during the criminal investigation. Fleischer did, was given immunity, and then testified to the Grand Jury.
Fleischer testified under an immunity deal with prosecutors and arrived in court with his attorneys. He sought the deal because he discussed Plame with reporters. Libby's attorneys plan to argue during cross-examination that the immunity deal makes Fleischer's testimony less credible.
Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg sought to head off that argument early in Fleischer's testimony by having him describe his deal.
"I cannot be prosecuted for what I did with the information I was provided," Fleischer said. "The immunity provides no protection for perjury."
Libby says he was surprised to learn from NBC News reporter Tim Russert that Plame worked at the CIA. Anything he later told reporters about Plame was simply a repetition of what he learned from Russert, Libby said.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's first witnesses were government employees who testified that they told Libby about Plame days before the Russert conversation. Fleischer is a key witness because, as Fitzgerald said in his opening statement: "You can't learn something on Thursday that you're giving out on Monday."
Nobody was ever charged with leaking Plame's identity. Libby is the only person charged in the case.
Libby's defense team will say that Friday, July 11, 2003 - the date that Fleischer told Gregory - is important, because they will say that this is the same day that Libby contacted NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert.
Libby has maintained that it was Russert who told him for the first time during that conversation about Plame. Libby told the grand jury that he was "taken aback" when he says he learned from Russert that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Libby also told the grand jury, "No, I didn't know that." Russert has said that Plame never came up in their conversation.
Defense attorneys will attempt to convince the jury that because Uganda is hours ahead of U.S. time, it is conceivable that Gregory told Russert who then told Libby.
Fitzgerald will counter this assertion by saying that Libby couldn't have been surprised to learn what he himself was giving out on Monday to the White House press secretary and that the jury should infer that Libby was lying to investigations about how he learned about Plame.
Defense to argue Fleischer testimony is tainted
Libby's attorneys will try to discredit Fleischer's testimony. Ted Wells has argued that Fleischer's testimony, which came only after the immunity deal, could be viewed as somewhat tainted.
Fitzgerald said that Fleischer, after reading a newspaper article indicating there was a criminal investigation, in September 2003 on the leak of Plame's name, indicated that to Fleischer, "it was one of those moments when your heart goes in your throat, and you think, I could be in very big trouble here."
The Washington Post article Fleischer read asserted that disclosing the identity of a covert CIA employee was a crime. Libby has not been charged with leaking Plame's name to reporters. He has been charged with lying to FBI investigators and obstructing their investigation into the leak, as to how he learned and what he told three reporters about Wilson's wife.
Libby's attorneys argue, in their motion to exclude some of Fleischer's testimony, that the jury should consider whether his immunity agreement gives him a reason to provide testimony that "will curry favor with the government."
Wells said Fleischer is in a "different position than any other witness in this case," and "may have issues where his credibility should be questioned because he has an arrangement."
'Motive to lie'?
Libby's defense team does not want to open the door to Fitzgerald to attempt to persuade the jury, through Fleischer's testimony, that Libby may have had a motive to lie because he was in a similar position to Fleischer.
Defense attorneys argue in the court filing, "Because Mr. Fleischer feared criminal prosecution in light of the article in question, this argument goes, Mr. Libby must have had a similar fear, and therefore motive to lie." They argue, "this court should not allow the government to prejudice Mr. Libby by using testimony concerning Mr. Fleischer's state of mind for this impermissible purpose."
Fitzgerald is expected to respond to Libby's attorneys in a separate court filing. This matter may delay Fleischer from taking the witness stand until presiding judge Reggie Walton issues a ruling on whether to allow Fleischer to testify on the reasoning for him to seek an immunity deal.
NBC's Joel Seidman, David Schuster and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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