Former Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper testified Wednesday that a key conversation with White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in the CIA leak case was off the record, a description that appeared to be at odds with his written account of the interview.
Cooper, the second reporter to testify at Libby’s perjury and obstruction trial, recalled a July 12, 2003 telephone conversation in which he asked Libby whether prominent war critic Joseph Wilson’s wife was behind a CIA-sponsored trip to investigate an Iraqi uranium deal.
Cooper testified Wednesday that Libby responded with the off-the-record comment, “Yeah, I’ve heard that too,” or “Yeah, I’ve heard something like that, too.”
Reporters normally take off-the-record comments as guidance that cannot be used in print. In a 2005 Time story recounting his involvement in the case, Cooper said his conversation with Libby was “on background,” a condition that normally allows the material to be used in print but without a name attached to it.
Cooper testified that he used Libby’s statement and a previous on-background interview with White House aide Karl Rove as the basis for asserting in an article that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA.
The apparent discrepancy doesn’t undercut Cooper’s account of the conversation but Libby’s attorneys could use it to question Cooper’s credibility. They have aggressively questioned previous witnesses about their inconsistent statements.
Libby is charged with lying and obstructing an FBI investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity. Prosecutors say Libby learned about Plame from several government officials, relayed that information to reporters, then lied to cover it up.
The first journalist to testify in the case, New York Times reporter Judith Miller, acknowledged Wednesday that she had conversations with other government officials and could not be “absolutely, absolutely certain” that she first heard about Plame from Libby.
Miller is a crucial witness in the case. She says she had two conversations about Plame in mid-2003 with Libby, who was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. Those conversations are at the heart of the trial because they allegedly occurred well before Libby says he learned Plame’s identity from another reporter.
Libby’s defense strategy revolves around showing jurors that he didn’t lie about his conversations regarding Plame, but simply forgot them. If defense attorneys can cast doubt on Miller’s memory and her story, it would bolster Libby’s case.
During a sometimes heated cross-examination Wednesday, defense attorneys pressed Miller to acknowledge that she might have heard about Plame elsewhere.
Attorney William Jeffress asked Miller to recall the other government officials she spoke to and explain how Wilson’s name and phone number got into her notebook prior to the conversation with Libby.
“I don’t remember their names. I don’t know what you want me to say beyond that,” Miller said, adding moments later, “I know I had several conversations but there is no reference to them in my notebook and I have no independent recollection.”
Jeffress persisted, showing Miller excerpts from her grand jury testimony in which she said her conversation with Libby was “among the first times” she heard about Plame but couldn’t be certain it was the first.
“You’re not absolutely certain you first heard that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA from Mr. Libby?” Jeffress asked.
“I can’t be absolutely, absolutely certain, but I have no recollection of an earlier conversation with anyone else,” Miller replied.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s case began as an investigation into who leaked Plame’s name to reporters at a time when her husband was criticizing the administration. Three years later, nobody has been charged with the leak.
Journalism organizations have decried this trial, which could see 10 reporters become witnesses. Jeffress has said that up to seven reporters are on his witness list.