WASHINGTON — Some of the nation's best-known journalists testified Monday about news leaks in the Bush administration as attorneys for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby tried to cast the former White House aide as a scapegoat in the CIA case.
Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is accused of lying and obstructing the investigation into the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.
Using reporters as their first batch of witnesses, Libby's attorneys tried to show that the administration was leaking from several sources. And when Libby had the opportunity to leak himself, they said, he did not.
Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus testified he learned about Plame, the wife of former ambassador and prominent war critic Joseph Wilson, from White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. The Post's Bob Woodward and syndicated columnist Robert Novak testified they heard it from Deputy State Department Secretary Richard Armitage.
As for Libby, both Novak and New York Times reporter David Sanger testified that they separately interviewed him and that he never discussed Plame.
"I believe you're the third Pulitzer prize winner to testify this morning," Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald quipped when he began questioning Sanger.
Fitzgerald says Libby learned Plame's identity from Cheney and other officials, then discussed it with New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper. Libby says he never revealed it to Miller and says he only told Cooper what he had heard from another reporter, NBC's Tim Russert.
White House scapegoat?
Libby is not charged with the leak, but Fitzgerald says he lied because he feared prosecution and losing his job. Video: Cheney dominates Libby trial
Defense attorneys say Libby had no reason to lie. Why, they ask, would he out Plame to Miller and not take the opportunity to do the same in interviews with Sanger and Novak?
Attorneys have suggested to jurors that Libby is being treated unfairly. Fleischer received immunity from prosecution in exchange for cooperating with authorities and Armitage was never prosecuted.
Woodward's testimony provided Libby's attorneys a victory in making that argument. They persuaded a judge to let them play a one-minute excerpt of Woodward's taped interview with Armitage. In it, Woodward asks about a CIA fact-finding mission that Wilson says helped him debunk prewar intelligence on Iraq.
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"Why would they send him?" Woodward asked.
"Because his wife's a (expletive) analyst at the agency," Armitage replied.
"It's still weird," Woodward said.
"It's perfect. That's what she does. She is a WMD analyst," Armitage said.
Defense attorneys want to show that if there was a concerted effort to out Plame, Libby wasn't part of it. They have also told jurors that members of the administration made Libby the scapegoat for top Bush adviser Karl Rove, who was a second source for Novak's column.
"I wouldn't call him a good friend. I would call him a very good source," Novak said of Rove. "I talked to him two or three times a week at that point."
Libby was not a regular source and did not contribute to the Plame story, Novak said.
"I had no help and no confirmation from Mr. Libby on that issue," Novak said.
Mitchell testimony still possible
Defense lawyers also are fighting hard to force NBC foreign affairs reporter Andrea Mitchell to testify about why she said that Plame's identity was "widely known" even before the Novak column was published.
Mitchell has since recanted those comments and has said that she cannot explain them.
A key dispute in the case involves Mitchell's NBC colleague, Tim Russert. Libby says Russert told him in July 2003 that "all the reporters know" Plame worked for the CIA. Russert said that never happened because he didn't know who Plame was at the time.
Prosecutors say Libby concocted the Russert story to shield him from prosecution for discussing information he had learned through official government channels. Video: Reporters testify in CIA leak trial
Libby's attorneys want to show that Russert had heard that Plame worked at the CIA. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has already testified that he told NBC reporter David Gregory about her. If Libby can show that Mitchell knew, too, they think they can persuade jurors to believe Libby's account of the Russert conversation.
Mitchell is challenging a subpoena to testify in the case, and U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said Monday he would
permit the defense team to question Mitchell Tuesday, outside the presence of the jury.
This will allow her testimony to be in the court record and then the judge can rule on whether Mitchell would appear before the jury.
In addition to Mitchell, attorneys have said several other journalists are expected to testify this week: New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson, Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas, and Glenn Kessler from the Washington Post.
The defense and Dick Cheney
When attorneys for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby do begin their defense of the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney this week, it will likely begin with a parade of witnesses, including prominent journalists and former co-workers. But his attorneys left it a mystery as to whether they would call the two star attractions on their witness list: Cheney and Libby himself.
Though a court filing Sunday night by Libby's attorneys argues that evidence of his deep involvement with national security issues during the summer of 2003 - part of his memory defense - should be admitted into evidence "regardless of whether he testifies." The vice president is in Washington this week and travels overseas next week on a trip to Japan and Australia. The speculation is that if called to testify for Libby, Cheney may appear at the courthouse sometime this week because it is possible that the Libby's defense may rest by the end of next week.
The defense had indicated that it planned to call Cheney, presumably to buttress the point about his former aide's intense workload at the White House.
But documents filed in federal court last week by Libby's attorneys said Cheney was "potentially" a witness. Such hesitation is a step back from attorney Theodore Wells' declaration in a pre-trial hearing December 20 that, "We're calling the vice president."
Valarie Plame Wilson's name was first disclosed publicly in a column by Robert Novak on July 14, 2003, just days after The New York Times published an Op-Ed article by her husband, who asserted that the Bush administration had willfully distorted intelligence to build its case for invading Iraq. Wilson had been sent on a mission to Niger by the C.I.A. to investigate intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium ore, called yellowcake, for his weapons program. Wilson returned in 2002 and reported he found no firm evidence that had occurred. Neither Libby, nor anyone else was charged with improperly disclosing Plame's name. After 11 days of testimony from 10 high-profile witnesses, prosecutors last week wrapped up their case. Libby's attorneys attempted to showing that prosecution witnesses at times suffered memory lapses. But those testifying were consistent on two key points: what they did not tell Libby, and what he told them about Wilson's wife.
Libby in his own defense?
Whether Libby will take the stand in his own defense remains unclear. His lawyers previously indicated he was going to testify, but they appear to be rethinking their plans. Video: Extraordinary portrait of Cheney
In a court filing, defense attorneys wrote, "Mr. Libby has not decided whether he will testify. He will make that decision, as defendants customarily do, on the advice of counsel after having the opportunity to assess the full prosecution case and other evidence presented during the defense case." Libby had planned to testify about how his work days were consumed with important national security issues that clouded his memory of how he learned and what he told reporters about the wife of administration critic, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Those issues, according to his attorneys, help bolster what has become known as the "memory defense."
Presiding U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, has said during the trial, that defense attorneys could not raise the memory defense at closing without Libby's testimony. The judge has not ruled yet on the memory defense issue and may reserve a judgment on the issue. "If Mr. Libby doesn't testify, there'll be no memory defense," Walton said.
The Associated Press and NBC’s Joel Seidman contributed to this story.