The jurors who convicted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby believed Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff was set up as a fall guy, a juror said Tuesday, but they had no alternative to finding him guilty in the leak of the identity of a classified CIA operative.
“I will say there was a tremendous amount of sympathy for Mr. Libby on the jury,” said the juror, Denis Collins, a former newspaper reporter.
“It was said a number of times: ‘What are we doing with this guy here? Where’s Rove? Where are these other guys?’ ” Collins said, referring to Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who was identified during the investigation as one of the senior officials who revealed the identity of the operative, Valerie Plame, to journalists.
“I’m not saying we didn’t think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of,” Collins said. “It seemed like he was, as Mr. Wells [Ted Wells, Libby’s attorney] put it, he was the fall guy.”
In fact, Collins said, the focus on Libby frustrated the jurors, who had hoped to get a crack at the larger issues.
“What we’re in court deciding seems to be a level or two down from what, before we went into the jury, we supposed the trial was about, or had been initially about, which was who leaked” Plame’s identity.
“Some jurors commented at some point: ‘I wish we weren’t judging Libby. You know, this sucks. We don’t like being here.’ But that wasn’t our choice.”
Cheney’s role not extensively discussed
The 11 jurors — one was not replaced after being dismissed for seeing a news account of the case — convicted Libby on Tuesday of four of the five counts against him, concluding that he perjured himself before a federal grand jury and obstructed justice by lying to the FBI about the Bush administration’s efforts to discredit Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
Wilson wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times in 2003 accusing the White House of misleading the public about Iraq’s attempts to obtain weapons material from Africa, a claim Wilson had investigated for the CIA and found baseless. Shortly thereafter, his wife’s identity was leaked to syndicated columnist Robert Novak, with the implication that Wilson was sent on his mission because of nepotism.
Testimony during the trial revealed that Cheney had taken a close personal role in monitoring the effort to discredit Wilson. But Collins stopped short of accusing the vice president of complicity in a cover-up, saying, “We actually never discussed that because that was not what we were assigned to do.”
“The belief of the jury was [Libby] was tasked by the vice president to talk to reporters,” said Collins, a former staff writer for The Washington Post who said he felt honor-bound as a journalist to speak with reporters. “We never came to any conclusion whether Cheney would have told him what exactly to say.”
Collins let the public in on how the jury approached the case, and in doing so, he demolished the speculation of numerous trial watchers about what was important and what was not.
The jurors focused with great intensity on the facts as stated by Fitzgerald and largely disregarded much-discussed questions of whether there was any cover-up of the leak and, if so, whether Cheney orchestrated it, Collins said.
“We had eight hours of grand jury testimony from Libby, so that was good. Hearing from Cheney, I think it would have been interesting,” he acknowledged. But he added: “I’m not sure what it would have done. I don’t have any idea what he would have said.”
In certain circumstances, it is a crime to disclose the identity of a covert CIA operative, and whether Plame’s identity was, in fact, classified was argued at great length during the trial.
But in then end, Collins said, it “wasn’t relevant” whether Plame’s identity was classified or not, “so we never talked about that.”
Russert conversation key to decision
The jury acquitted Libby of one count of lying to the FBI about his conversation with Matthew Cooper, then a reporter for Time magazine. Testimony conflicted too much, Collins said, and there was enough reasonable doubt because it came down Libby’s word against Cooper’s word.
But the jury convicted Libby of lying to the FBI about his conversation with Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and the host of “.” The jury found Russert to be “very credible,” Collins said.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald contended that Libby learned of Plame’s identity from Cheney and falsely told the FBI that he learned it from Russert, instead, to hide the vice president’s involvement. Libby’s attorneys said he learned about Plame from Cheney, forgot about it and then learned it again a month later from Russert.
The jurors believed Fitzgerald. Collins said they did not believe Libby could possibly have forgotten that the vice president had told him something that important.
“We were told he had a bad memory, and we believed he did,” Collins said. But “even if he forgot who had told him about Mrs. Wilson [Plame’s married name], it seemed very unlikely that he would not have remembered that about Mrs. Wilson.”