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Possible Libby jurors quizzed

Times Staff Writer

Jury selection in the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby turned into an assessment of the credibility of the Bush administration Tuesday, with lawyers for the former White House aide asking potential jurors how they feel about the war in Iraq and whether they think present and former administration officials who may be called to testify can be believed.

Libby is charged with lying to investigators about conversations he had with journalists about a CIA operative who is married to a critic of the administration’s war policies. Libby’s lawyers signaled Tuesday that even though the case was about perjury and obstruction, they were concerned that strong feelings among the jurors about the war -- and whether President Bush misled the public about it -- could influence their verdict.

Two potential jurors were dismissed after expressing strongly negative feelings about administration officials.

The questioning about the Bush administration and the Iraq war drew repeated objections from prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who said that the defense lawyers were engaged in “an open-ended Rorschach test,” alluding to the famous ink-blot test in which people are believed to project their feelings onto ambiguous stimuli.

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But U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said the defense had a right to fully explore whether any of the jurors were biased.

In court papers filed Tuesday, Libby’s lawyers argued that the questioning was needed because of an unusual amount of pretrial publicity in the case, which they said had in some cases been “inaccurate and inflammatory” and “unduly prejudicial.” They cited a press conference that Fitzgerald had given after Libby was indicted, among other examples.

The judge dismissed a financial analyst who said he would have problems believing Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby’s former boss, who is expected to testify on behalf of his former aide. A young woman was dismissed after she acknowledged she was “completely without objectivity” about the Bush administration, and could not find “anything positive” to say about it.

As part of the pretrial scrutiny, Walton read the names of 80 prominent figures who he said would probably be mentioned at the trial or called as witnesses, to see whether any were familiar to the jurors. Besides Cheney, the list included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former CIA Director George J. Tenet, and a raft of journalists including Washington Post editor and reporter Bob Woodward.

Rice was Bush’s national security advisor when Libby worked for Cheney. If she were to emerge as a witness for the government, it could provide an additional glimpse into the inner workings of the administration.

A State Department spokeswoman said she had no information about whether Rice would testify, and referred calls to the Justice Department. A spokesman for Fitzgerald declined to elaborate.

Libby was indicted after a three-year investigation by Fitzgerald that began when the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame was mentioned in a July 14, 2003, column by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. Plame is married to former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, who in a New York Times op-ed article eight days earlier had accused the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence.

Though it is a felony to publicize the name of a covert agent, Fitzgerald did not charge anyone with that crime. Libby, the only person charged in the investigation, was accused of misleading investigators by suggesting he had heard about Plame from reporters, when according to Fitzgerald, Libby was giving reporters that information.

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Jury selection is expected to last several days. The trial is expected to last six weeks; opening statements are set for early next week.

rick.schmitt@latimes.com


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