Trial shows an insular, backbiting Washington

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Times Staff Writer

With the Bush administration taking a pounding over erroneous prewar claims about Iraq in the summer of 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff consulted his office’s top communications advisor on how to strike back.

As they talked by phone, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby scribbled down a series of Machiavellian suggestions from Cheney’s then-communications guru, Mary Matalin: What to do about MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews and his steady barrage of Iraq war criticism? “Call Tim,” Libby wrote, referring to Tim Russert of NBC News. “He hates Chris.”

What to make of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had emerged that summer to challenge the veracity of one of the administration’s most alarming claims about Saddam Hussein’s regime? “Wilson is a snake,” Libby transcribed.


And how best to use the power of the White House to beat back the attacks? The president “should wave his wand,” Matalin advised, and quickly declassify portions of intelligence reports that backed up the White House case for war.

Libby is the defendant in the case that brought this page of notes to light Wednesday -- a case that centers on whether he lied to federal investigators looking into the leak of an undercover CIA operative’s name.

But in many respects, it is the ugly mutual exploitation that goes on every day in Washington between powerful government officials and influential members of the media that is on trial in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Five days in, the trial has been dominated by testimony from two of the Bush administration’s top media handlers -- former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and former Cheney communications director Catherine J. Martin -- as well as two prominent Washington journalists.

Martin, in particular, offered in her testimony last week an unusually detailed description of how the White House seeks to manipulate the news media.

She described plans to leak stories to certain reporters, including the New York Times’ David E. Sanger and the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus; freeze out others, such as New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof; book administration officials on talk shows such as Russert’s “Meet the Press”; and release bad news on weekends, when it was more likely to be ignored.


Neither side has fared well, with prosecutors accusing the administration of carrying out a smear campaign against Wilson, and defense attorneys scrutinizing everything from the sloppy note-taking practices to the murky ethical terrain of members of the media.

Even jurors seem somewhat appalled by the display. At one point, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton read aloud a question submitted by one member of the panel after former New York Times reporter Judith Miller testified that she remembered details of a crucial meeting with Libby only after discovering a shopping bag full of notebooks under her desk.

“Is this the standard method you used for archiving?” the juror asked.

The trial has cast such a harsh light on the interplay between public officials and the press in part because federal prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald was unusually aggressive in challenging notions that members of the media should be able to protect their sources from public exposure. Miller agreed to testify only after she had spent 85 days in jail for refusing to divulge information on her sources.

The case has also provided a penetrating look into the strategies that top government officials employ to manipulate the media.

In his testimony, former Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper acknowledged that he had only recently started covering the White House when the CIA leak scandal erupted. Even so, he was quickly granted access to one of the most powerful figures in the Bush White House, political advisor Karl Rove, mainly because the administration was eager to discredit Wilson.

Recounting their conversation, Cooper said Rove cautioned him, “Don’t get too far out on Wilson,” meaning the credibility of Wilson’s criticism, because “a number of things are going to be coming out” on him.


Pressed by Cooper, Rove added that Wilson had not been sent to Africa by Cheney to investigate whether Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium there. Instead, Cheney said it was Wilson’s wife who had sent him and that “she worked on WMD at the agency.”

“I took that to mean the CIA,” Cooper quipped, “not the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Some of the most revealing information has come during conferences when jurors are asked to leave the room. The notes that Libby scribbled during his conversation with Matalin, for example, were on a page that Judge Walton declined to be allowed as evidence because Libby hadn’t called Wilson a “snake,” he had only written down someone else’s comments.

To show that to the jury, Walton said, would be “marginally probative but highly prejudicial.”

Libby wrote the notes after a senior staff meeting at the White House during which Rove complained that the administration had been too slow in mobilizing a response to Wilson. The former envoy had written in a New York Times opinion piece that his trip to Africa had shown that Iraq wasn’t seeking uranium there long before Bush included that claim in a State of the Union speech.

Perhaps on Matalin’s advice, Libby went on to have a conversation with Russert, who is expected to testify in the coming days.

The trial has also reinforced stereotypes that reporters in Washington and the officials they cover are part of an elite crowd that has little in common with average readers.


Cooper said he followed up his conversation with Rove by arranging an interview with Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff at the time. The logistics were complicated, Cooper said, because the day they were to talk he was swimming at a country club that doesn’t permit cellphones. He said he “had to keep running out to the parking lot” to check his cellphone and electronic message device “to see when I was going to speak with Mr. Libby.”

The trial has also offered jurors a primer on reporting tradecraft, with a great deal of testimony devoted to the various degrees of anonymity reporters grant sources in order to coax information from them. While discussing the differences between such terms as “background” and “off the record,” Miller was asked how common it was for government officials to refuse to have their comments attributed to them by name.

Very common, she said, “particularly in this administration.”