Vice President Dick Cheney's spokeswoman testified Thursday she told I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby that a prominent war critic's wife was a CIA employee earlier than Libby has said he first learned it from a reporter.
On the third day of Libby's trial, Cathie Martin became the first member of Cheney's inner circle to contradict statements by Libby that led to the charges he lied to the FBI and a grand jury investigating who leaked the wife's identity to reporters in 2003.
Theodore Wells, defense lawyer for Cheney's former chief of staff, quickly sought to limit any damage from the testimony of Cheney's former assistant for public affairs.
Wells got Martin to acknowledge that she herself could not recall for sure whether she relayed the information about CIA operative Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, to Cheney and Libby on June 11, 2003, or as late as July 6, 2003.
The date is important because Libby told investigators he first heard of Plame's job from NBC reporter Tim Russert on July 10. Libby claims that because he was preoccupied with pressing national security issues, he simply forgot he had earlier learned about her work at CIA from government officials.
Besides Martin, one State Department and two CIA officials testified earlier to conversations with Libby about Plame before July 10, 2003. The defense tried to show each had imperfect memories
Libby taking the stand?
On Thursday morning, a legal argument between Wells and prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald outside the jury's presence increased the likelihood that Libby will testify. Fitzgerald argued that Wells was trying to get the memory defense into evidence "with no guarantee of Mr. Libby testifying" and being subject to cross-examination about his memory.
But U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton warned, "I will not permit the defense to argue the memory defense at closing if Mr. Libby does not testify."
Martin provided an inside look at how intensely Cheney, Libby and other administration officials worked on responding to the firestorm of criticism that developed months after the war began in March 2003 when Wilson called into question President Bush's justifications.
Wilson claimed that questions from Cheney were the reason he was sent by the CIA to Niger in 2002 to investigate reports Iraq tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons. But Wilson said he debunked the story long before Bush used it in his State of the Union address in January 2003 to help justify the war. Also, the ex-ambassador said he assumed Cheney was aware of his conclusions.
Cheney's talking points
Fitzgerald got Martin to testify that Cheney personally wrote out statements and talking points for Libby and other aides to give to reporters to deny he was behind Wilson's trip or ever learned Wilson's conclusions.
Martin testified Cheney also wanted to tell reporters that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a formal National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 that Iraq did seek uranium.
Plame actually conceived the idea for the trip in response to interest from Cheney and the State and Defense Departments, a CIA witness has testified.
Fitzgerald says Libby discussed Plame's job and role with reporters as part of the White House effort to discredit Wilson.
But under Wells' cross-examination, Martin testified she had no knowledge that Libby ever discussed Plame's job with any reporter. She also said Cheney ordered her to get all the facts out, but she did not think Plame's role was part of the story she had to tell.
"It didn't seem appropriate or helpful for us to get that out," Martin testified. "It gave me some explanation" of the affair, but "we didn't need it as a talking point."
Martin testified that sometime after Wilson's claims first emerged, attributed to an unnamed ex-ambassador, in a New York Times column on May 6, 2003, she called CIA spokesman Bill Harlow to sort out the genesis of the mission.
She said Harlow told her Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. She said she immediately went to the vice president's office and told Cheney and Libby about it. She did not recall their response.
Martin testified that the Harlow conversation occurred no later than July 6 because she was not surprised to see Wilson discussing the affair on NBC's "Meet the Press" on that date. But Wells got her to acknowledge "it makes sense to me" she might have talked about Plame with Harlow on June 11, when government telephone records show they talked.