Journalists take stand in Libby’s defense
In the middle of June 2003, when Washington Post editor Bob Woodward sat down with a top source at the State Department, he had a question.
The capital was buzzing over a public attack by a former U.S. diplomat on one of the claims President Bush had made to justify the Iraq war. For support, the diplomat was citing a fact-finding trip he’d made to Africa on orders from CIA officials.
“Why would they send him?” a puzzled Woodward asked, referring to the ex-envoy, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had been dispatched to Niger to assess the nuclear intentions of Saddam Hussein.
“Because his wife’s a [expletive] analyst at the agency,” Richard L. Armitage, then the deputy secretary of State, replied.
Woodward -- and his taperecorded, expletive-laden exchange with Armitage -- became a focus Monday at the trial of a top White House aide accused of lying to investigators about how the name of a CIA agent became public.
Woodward and a parade of other prominent Washington journalists have been called to testify about how they learned of the agent, Valerie Plame, married to Wilson. All said they had been told about Plame and her CIA role by government officials other than the defendant, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Monday’s testimony came as Libby’s lawyers launched a defense portraying their client as a scapegoat in a three-year federal probe into who leaked the identity of Plame, an agency analyst specializing in arms proliferation.
Whatever its value to the defense may prove to be, the journalists’ testimony made one thing clear: At a time when the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war was coming under increasing attack, officials in the White House and beyond were doing a lot of talking to reporters about Plame -- even though it can be against the law to divulge the identity of covert intelligence agents.
In addition to Woodward, syndicated newspaper columnist Robert Novak testified Monday. Novak -- whose disclosure of Plame’s name and CIA connection in a July 14, 2003, piece kicked off the original leak furor -- said he had heard about Plame from White House political guru Karl Rove, as well as from Armitage.
Reporter Walter Pincus of the Washington Post also took the stand, saying then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer had given him the information.
The government has not alleged that Libby was the first person to divulge Plame’s identity nor that he was the first to leak information that was published about her.
Rather, he is charged with essentially orchestrating a cover-up of his involvement.
Rove, Fleischer and Armitage have acknowledged speaking to reporters about Wilson’s wife. Libby is the only person charged with a crime.
Novak and Pincus said they had spoken with Libby in summer 2003 about the controversy surrounding Wilson’s claim that the Bush administration had twisted prewar intelligence in Iraq.
But both men said Libby did not provide them information about Plame. Their comments were echoed by three other prominent Washington journalists in the witness box Monday: David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times; Evan Thomas, editor at large of Newsweek; and Glenn Kessler, another Post reporter.
Woodward, famous for helping break open the Watergate scandal, has been a provocative figure in the story about Plame and Wilson.
Though he apparently was the first journalist to learn her identity in the scandal, he did not disclose the fact until after Libby was indicted in October 2005.
Woodward testified that he spoke with Armitage on June 13, 2003, while preparing a book on the administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq.
He turned a copy of the interview over to prosecutors in the investigation.
The excerpt played for the jury, about a minute long, provided an unusual window into the reporting process -- edited for profanities.
“Joe Wilson’s been calling everybody,” Armitage said on the recording. “He’s pissed off because he was designated as a low-level guy.” Armitage proceeded to tell Woodward about Wilson’s wife’s CIA connection.
“It’s still weird,” Woodward responded.
“It -- it’s perfect. This is what she does,” Armitage said. “She is a WMD analyst out there.” (WMD stands for weapons of mass destruction.)
Woodward: “Oh, she is?”
Woodward: “Oh, I see.”
In testimony, Woodward was deliberate and poised. When the tape was played for the court -- a scene that might have been expected to make him wince, since he had promised confidentiality -- he cracked a joke about gaps in the recording where Armitage uttered an obscenity.
“In the raw, it has a little more fire,” Woodward said.
But Woodward, like others, was clearly uncomfortable with describing conversations that were supposed to be confidential, and he repeatedly mentioned that he had obtained permission from his sources to discuss those conversations.
With the journalists’ testimony, the defense aimed to make the case not only that Libby wasn’t the source of the leak, but that he repeatedly passed up opportunities to whisper Plame’s name to the press.
As usual in this trial, the testimony was often more interesting in its revelations about the workings of Washington.
The controversy began when Wilson wrote in a newspaper opinion piece that there was no credible support for administration claims that Hussein had tried to obtain nuclear weapons material from Niger.
On assignment for the CIA, Wilson had made a trip to Africa to look into the question, which had arisen in the intelligence community before it became a subject of public dispute. Wilson wrote that his investigation had found no proof of the claim, and he accused the administration of misrepresenting intelligence on the subject.
The White House, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, was furious about Wilson’s article, which also suggested that Cheney had a role in arranging the fact-finding mission to Africa. Libby was then Cheney’s chief of staff.
Pincus, who was among the first to write about Wilson’s allegations, testified Monday about an early effort by the White House to contain the controversy.
Pincus said he got a call at the Post on a Saturday from Fleischer, who sought to portray Wilson’s trip to Niger as a “boondoggle.”
Fleischer “suddenly swerved” off other topics and argued that the uranium story was being overplayed, Pincus said.
He said Fleischer challenged him to explain: “Why do you keep writing about Joseph Wilson and Joseph Wilson’s trip? Don’t you know his wife works at the CIA? ... She’s the one who sent him on this trip. That’s why no one is paying attention.”