What do Bob Woodward, Robert Novak, Walter Pincus, David Sanger, Glenn Kessler, and Evan Thomas have in common? They’re all reporters, of course, and on Monday, in testimony at the perjury and obstruction trial of Lewis Libby, each had much the same story. Each was covering events in Washington during that intense period in mid-2003 when the Bush administration came under attack from former ambassador Joseph Wilson over its case for war in Iraq. Each interviewed Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. And each heard nothing from Libby about Valerie Plame Wilson.
Together, their testimony raised questions about one of the fundamental theories underlying the CIA-leak case. If Libby’s disclosure of Mrs. Wilson’s identity to Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper was part of a White House conspiracy to out Joseph Wilson’s wife, why didn’t Libby take the opportunities he had to out her to Woodward, Novak, Pincus, et al? Did Cheney, who is portrayed in some scenarios as the mastermind of the leak, tell Libby to disclose Mrs. Wilson’s identity to Matt Cooper and not to Bob Woodward? To Judith Miller and not to Robert Novak?
If there don’t appear to be satisfactory answers to those questions, then that is exactly the impression the Libby defense hoped to leave on its first day of presenting witnesses; the idea was to pick away at the version of events presented by the witnesses called by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Much of that was done indirectly, with the testimony of leaks not made. But in one case, it was done head-on, as Libby’s defenders managed to do some serious damage to one of Fitzgerald’s strongest witnesses.
Two weeks ago, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told the jury of having lunch with Libby in the White House mess on July 7, 2003, a lunch at which Libby told Fleischer about Valerie Plame Wilson. “He said something along the lines of this is hush-hush, this is on the QT, not very many people know about this,” Fleischer testified.
In effective, well-practiced testimony, Fleischer went on to say that he passed the information about Mrs. Wilson on to two reporters, John Dickerson, then of Time magazine, and David Gregory, of NBC News. On cross examination, Libby defense attorney William Jeffress also asked Fleischer about a July 12, 2003 phone conversation involving Pincus, of the Washington Post.
“Did you tell Walter Pincus, during that conversation on July 12th, that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA?” William Jeffress asked.
“No sir, I have no recollection of telling that — “ Fleischer answered.
“No recollection of telling him that at all? You would remember if it happened?”
“Sure I would,” Fleischer said. “I do not.”
That was the only side of the story the jury heard — until Monday. With Pincus on the stand, Jeffress again zeroed in on that July 12 phone call. Pincus had acknowledged its existence before, but had never revealed the source to whom he spoke that day.
“It was about weapons of mass destruction,” Pincus testified. “And in the midst of a discussion…the person I was calling suddenly swerved off and said, ‘Why do you keep writing about Joe Wilson and Joe Wilson’s trip? Don’t you know that his wife worked for the CIA as an analyst for weapons of mass destruction and arranged for it?”
“Was the person who told you this on July 12 a government official?” Jeffress asked.
“Yes,” said Pincus.
“Was it Mr. Libby?”
“Who was it?”
“It was Ari Fleischer.”
Not only was that a direct contradiction of Fleischer, it was also the second time a reporter had differed with the former press secretary’s testimony. On the day Fleischer took the stand, Dickerson wrote an account flatly denying that Fleischer told him about Mrs. Wilson. But that was in the pages of Slate, not in the courtroom, and the jury presumably knows nothing of it. Jurors could see Pincus’ testimony for themselves. (Gregory, for his part, has not publicly commented.)
“I MIGHT HAVE BROUGHT IT UP” Beyond casting doubt on the prosecution’s story, the other part of the defense strategy was to lend plausibility to Libby’s version of events. Libby told the grand jury that he felt surprise when Tim Russert told him, on July 10 or 11, 2003, that Valerie Plame Wilson worked for the CIA and that many reporters knew it. On the witness stand, Russert flatly denied talking to Libby about Mrs. Wilson. But today, two reporters testified that that they might have brought it up with Libby. While that doesn’t change the conflict between Libby’s testimony and Russert’s, it lends credence to the defense contention that some reporters might have been telling Libby about Mrs. Wilson, and that perhaps Libby remembered the wrong reporter when he testified before the grand jury.
Novak testified that he spoke to Libby by phone on July 9, 2003, the day before the Russert conversation. “In the context of talking to Mr. Libby about Mr. Wilson’s trip to Niger, did the topic of where ambassador Wilson’s wife worked come up?” asked defense lawyer Ted Wells.
“I don’t remember exactly,” Novak said. “I might have brought it up….What I am absolutely confident about is I got no help and no confirmation from Mr. Libby.”
“It’s fair to say that you have no clear recollection?”
“I am sure he gave me no information about it,” Novak answered.
Woodward also left the door open slightly when he described a conversation with Libby on June 27, 2003. “Did you ask Mr. Libby about Mr. Wilson’s wife?” asked Jeffress.
“Not that I recall,” Woodward answered.
“Is it possible that you did?”
“Did Mr. Libby say anything to you about Mr. Wilson’s wife?”
“There’s no doubt that Mr. Libby did not say anything about Wilson’s wife, because I would have had it in my notes,” Woodward said.
“HOW ABOUT THAT [EXPLETIVE DELETED]?” The highlight of the day, however, came in a moment in which the jury, and the world, was allowed to listen in on an interview-cum-dish session between Woodward and Richard Armitage, the former top State Department official who was the first to leak Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity. And as a recording of the conversation played, the jury in the CIA-leak trial heard the first CIA leak.
It happened on June 13, 2003, when Woodward called Armitage for an interview for what would become his book Plan of Attack. The two men talked about the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa, and then about Joseph Wilson’s trip to Niger. At that time, Wilson was taking anonymous shots at the White House; his name was not known in public.
But Woodward had found out, and brought it up to Armitage. “It was Joe Wilson who was sent by the agency,” Woodward said. “I mean, that’s just — “
“His wife works in the agency,” Armitage answered.
“Why doesn’t that come out?” Woodward asked. “Why does — “
“Everyone knows it,” Armitage responded.
“That have to be a big secret?” Woodward continued. “Everyone knows.”
“Yeah,” said Armitage. “And I know [expletive deleted] Joe Wilson’s been calling everybody. He’s pissed off because he was designated as a low-level guy, went out to look at it. So, he’s all pissed off.”
“But why would they send him?” asked Woodward, echoing the questions being asked at the very moment in the vice president’s office.
“Because his wife’s a [expletive deleted] analyst at the agency,” Armitage said.
“It’s still weird,” said Woodward.
“It’s perfect,” Armitage countered. “This is what she does — she is a WMD analyst out there.”
“Oh, she is,” Woodward responded.
“Oh, I see.”
“[Expletive deleted] look at it,” Armitage said.
“Oh, I see,” Woodward said. “I didn’t [expletive deleted].”
“Yeah, see?” Armitage said.
“Oh, she’s the chief WMD?” asked Woodward.
“No, she isn’t the chief, no,” Armitage responded.
“But high enough up that she can say, ‘Oh yeah, hubby will go’?”
“Yeah, he knows Africa,” said Armitage, referring to Joseph Wilson.
“Was she out there with him?” asked Woodward.
“When he was an ambassador?”
“Not to my knowledge,” said Armitage. “I don’t know. I don’t know if she was out there or not. But his wife is in the agency and is a WMD analyst. How about that [expletive deleted]?”
Woodward testified that Armitage’s “everyone knows it” comment referred to the fact that Joseph Wilson was the at-that-time anonymous former ambassador criticizing Bush. But a fair-minded listener — including, perhaps, one or two on the jury — could just as easily conclude that the “everyone knows it” referred to the fact of Mrs. Wilson’s job status. A juror might also wonder exactly what Armitage meant when he said that an angry Joseph Wilson had “been calling everybody.”
In any event, none of it had anything to do with Libby, except that Libby was not the one leaking.
So Monday was a day devoted to things Lewis Libby did not do. He didn’t tell Woodward about Mrs. Wilson. He didn’t tell Pincus. He didn’t tell Novak. He didn’t tell Sanger. He didn’t tell Kessler. He didn’t tell Thomas. That doesn’t clear Libby, but it does poke holes in the prosecution’s theory of the case.