Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, in tapes played Monday in the CIA leak trial, pressed Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff on whether Cheney had directed him to leak the identity of a CIA operative to reporters.
The audiotapes showed that Fitzgerald, just a month into his leak investigation, was asking pointed questions about the highest levels of government.
The first 90 minutes of audiotapes, recorded during the 2003 grand jury testimony of top Cheney aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, were played for jurors in Libby’s perjury and obstruction trial. More than six hours of additional tapes were to be played Tuesday.
Fitzgerald began his questioning by determining what he already knew to be true — that Libby was not the source of syndicated columnist Robert Novak’s story revealing that the wife of an outspoken Bush administration critic worked for the CIA.
Almost immediately after that, however, Fitzgerald steered the discussion toward Cheney and how his office responded to the growing criticism from former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who claimed to have led a fact-finding mission that refuted some prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Libby said Cheney mentioned in an offhand way in June of 2003 that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA. Fitzgerald asked whether Cheney was upset by the apparent “nepotism” in the fact Plame may have arranged the trip. Libby said he did not recall.
Fitzgerald also asked whether Cheney expected Libby to share that with reporters, specifically Walter Pincus of The Washington Post. Libby said he did not.
Fitzgerald asked four times and in four different ways whether Libby could be absolutely sure he did not disclose the information to Pincus. Pincus never revealed Plame’s identity.
“The vice president obviously thought it was important enough to share with you or interesting enough to color the background, correct?” Fitzgerald said.
“Yes,” Libby replied.
Fitzgerald never brought a leak charge. Libby, who is accused of lying about his conversations with reporters regarding Plame, is the only person charged in the case.
Public will have access to audio
The tapes, which will be publicly released and broadcast once the trial jury finishes hearing them, form the basis for three of the five criminal charges against Libby, who is accused of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI.
Libby is charged with lying about how he learned of the CIA identity of the wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson and what he told reporters about it.
Portions of the obstruction charge as well as both perjury charges deal with the ex-White House aide's alleged lies to the grand jury.
Libby's alleged lies in his 2004 grand jury testimony concern his conversations with NBC News reporter Tim Russert, New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper.
(MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC News joint venture.)
Fitzgerald successfully fought to enter the tapes into evidence and plans to play about eight hours of Libby's closed-door testimony. He made lengthy grand jury appearances on March 5 and March 24, 2004.
It is unusual for the government to make such extensive use of a defendant's audiotaped grand jury testimony. The federal government did so 17 years ago in another high-profile criminal case in Washington — the drug trial of Washington Mayor Marion Barry.
Right to a fair trial questioned
Although segments of Libby's testimony would be widely distributed by reporters who are monitoring the trial, Libby's lawyers had argued that the audio itself was too sensitive to be released until the trial ends.
One of Libby's lawyers, William Jeffress, said that playing sound bites of the defendant's grand jury appearances in a public setting "seriously threatens Mr. Libby's right to a fair trial."
From the news media's perspective, "it's great stuff," Jeffress told the judge in asking that the recordings not be released during the trial.
Media attorney Nathan Siegel said publicly releasing the grand jury recordings during the trial is hardly "some novel proposition."
Siegel, representing The Associated Press and more than a dozen other news organizations, argued that Libby's own words are far less prejudicial than evidence that has been released in other cases, including 911 calls from inside the World Trade Center, the FBI tapes in the Abscam investigation and mob wiretap tapes.
Jeffress argued that the news media will undoubtedly issue commentary to accompany any excerpts it plays from the audio recordings of Libby's grand jury testimony.
Libby's lawyer pointed to the potential for jurors to be exposed to the recordings outside the courtroom, since they are away from the court three days a week and ride back and forth to the courthouse.
"I have my concerns," Walton said, adding that cases in the federal judicial circuit covering Washington, D.C., point to disclosure of the material rather than waiting until the trial is over.
The tapes would almost certainly be played on television, radio and the Internet.
The tapes are expected to take up part of Tuesday. Russert, host of NBC's “Meet the Press,” is scheduled to be Fitzgerald's last witness, most likely late Tuesday.