After several days of jury selection, the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, began Jan. 22 in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. Libby was charged with five felony counts of lying to FBI investigators and a grand jury. The charges grew out of an investigation into who illegally leaked the name of CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame, wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Libby was not charged with the”outing” of Mrs. Wilson, but in effect with impeding the investigation.
In his opening statement on Jan. 23, Libby’s attorney asserted that the White House had made his client a scapegoat in order to protect Karl Rove, the longtime political adviser to–”and sometimes called the “brain” of–”President George W. Bush. The following day’s New York Times, however, failed to explain the connection between protecting Rove and the actions that led to Libby’s indictment. The scapegoat defense, moreover, could endanger the chances of a pardon by President Bush, if Libby is convicted.
Libby is accused of lying when he said that he learned of Mrs. Wilson’s identity from reporters. While tough prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald concentrated on the straightforward task of proving that Libby lied, the trial quickly became a riveting drama of how bogus intelligence got the U.S. into the Iraqi war.
The genesis of the case is President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union Address. In what the media terms “the famous 16 words,” Bush claimed that Iraq had sought to acquire uranium from the African country of Niger. The dubious uranium reference lent portentous support to administration claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussain had “weapons of mass destruction.”
The previous year, however, Ambassador Wilson had gone on a CIA-instigated and -financed trip to Niger. (In his Foreign Service career, Wilson had served both in West Africa and Iraq.) In a July 6, 2003 New York Times op-Ed, he stated that the president’s uranium claim was false.
Almost immediately after the op-Ed was published, White House-inspired press reports denigrating Wilson appeared, Plame was “outed” and Wilson’s Africa trip was labeled a “junket” arranged by his CIA wife.
In the course of his trial, one prosecution witness after another testified that Libby’s testimony of learning about Plame’s identity from reporters was untrue. As the trial proceeded, it became apparent that Libby had lied to protect his boss, Vice President Cheney. The most damning witnesses were White House lawyer Cathie Martin and Tim Russert of NBC News–”from whom Libby had said he learned of Plame’s identity. The highly credible Russert testified that he and Libby had not discussed Plame.
Martin testified that she, Libby and Steve Hadley, then deputy national security adviser, drafted a statement to be issued by CIA Director George Tenet in 2004 taking the blame for the bogus uranium claim in Bush’s State of the Union Address. Tenet agreed to saying that the CIA “approved” the claim and that “I am responsible.” Tenet later was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Overall, testimony showed Libby to have been a pawn of the vice president’s campaign to get the United States to attack Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussain. Weeks of suspense over whether Libby or Vice President Cheney–who was included on a list of possible defense witnesses–”would testify, ended in the trial’s final days with the announcement that neither would do so.
Libby’s decision not to testify in his own behalf undoubtedly made his defense–that he did not lie but simply had a poor memory–less credible to his jurors. Whether or not Libby is found guilty, however, the deeper guilt rests with Vice President Cheney, who did not appear at the trial, but who clearly was the power behind his former chief of staff.