Politics & Policy

Libby to Fitzgerald: If You Won’t Name The Cia Leaker, I Will

And what was that Colin Powell said in September 2003?

It’s sometimes difficult to remember, given the legal twists and turns it has taken, that the CIA leak investigation was begun to find out who exposed the identity of CIA employee Valerie Wilson to columnist Robert Novak and whether that person violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act in doing so. After more than two years of investigating, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has not charged anyone with that crime–if indeed it was a crime–nor has he publicly answered either question. Fitzgerald has even refused to provide lawyers for the only person indicted in the case, former Cheney chief of staff Lewis Libby, with evidence that Wilson was indeed a covert agent at the time of the July 14, 2003, Novak column, or that the exposure of her identity did any damage to national security, arguing that that information–the very heart of the CIA leak case–is not relevant to the perjury and obstruction charges against Libby.

But now the Libby defense team is attempting to return the case to first things. In an extraordinary 35-page motion filed with Judge Reggie Walton late Friday, Libby’s lawyers lay the groundwork for a plan to use his perjury trial as a way to find what happened in the CIA leak affair. After all, just what is it that Libby is accused of lying about? Why was it that all the conversations in question were taking place? Who said what to whom? If Libby’s lawyers persuade Judge Walton to order Fitzgerald to turn over some of the reams of information he has gathered in the case, we might finally found out–most likely over the prosecutor’s vigorous objections–what actually happened in the CIA leak case.

Libby’s motion is, formally, a request for documents relating to the expected testimony of an imposing roster of current and former government officials likely to be called as witnesses in the trial. In the motion, they are listed together (at least publicly) for the first time:

1. Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State

2. Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary

3. Marc Grossman, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs

4. Stephen Hadley, former Deputy National Security Advisor

5. Bill Harlow, former CIA Spokesman

6. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State

7. Karl Rove, Deputy Chief of Staff to the President

8. George Tenet, former Director of Central Intelligence

9. The CIA Briefer referred to in paragraph 11 of the indictment (Craig Schmall, Peter Clement or Matt Barrett)

10. The Senior CIA Official referred to in paragraph 7 of the indictment, who may be either Robert Grenier or John McLaughlin

11. Joseph Wilson

12. Valerie Plame Wilson

[Libby’s lawyers also say they expect Vice President Cheney to testify, but his name is not on the list because Fitzgerald has already turned over documents from Cheney’s office, and thus Libby is not requesting any new evidence from that source.]

Some of the witnesses are expected to testify that they told Libby that former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, or that Libby told them that–accounts Fitzgerald believes will help him make the case that Libby lied to the grand jury about how he learned about Valerie Wilson. But in the new motion, Libby argues, in effect, that these people also know the larger story of the CIA leak. And knowing that larger story is necessary to understand Libby’s testimony; for Libby’s lawyers to question the witnesses about his allegedly false testimony, the lawyers will have to know what was going on at the time. Is one of the witnesses himself Novak’s source? Does anyone have a motive to shade his testimony against Libby? And what was the context in which all the talking was taking place? In the court papers, Libby’s lawyers suggest that the answers to those questions will demolish Fitzgerald’s interpretation of events.

The indictment against Libby contains a series of statements which strongly suggest that the White House’s desire to retaliate against Joseph Wilson led to a scheme to expose his wife’s identity. But Libby’s lawyers say Fitzgerald, tightly focused on Valerie Wilson, missed the big picture of what was happening in May, June, and July 2003. During that time, the motion argues, Libby was preoccupied with the now-famous “16 words” in the president’s State of the Union address concerning Iraq’s alleged attempts to purchase yellowcake uranium in Niger, and also with parrying ferocious Democratic attacks on the administration’s case for the war. In addition, the lawyers say, Libby was fighting a rear-guard action against other officials of the Bush administration, specifically those in the CIA and the State Department, who were trying to blame the White House for the Iraq intelligence debacle. Compared to that–in what was surely one of the most intense periods in an administration filled with intense periods–the identity of Valerie Wilson, Libby argues, was small potatoes. “The indictment presents a distorted picture of the relevant events,” the motion says,

by exaggerating the importance government officials, including Mr. Libby, attributed to Ms. Wilson’s employment status prior to July 14, 2003. The prosecution has an interest in continuing to overstate the significance of Ms. Wilson’s affiliation with the CIA. Doing so makes it easier to suggest that Mr. Libby would not have forgotten or confused his conversations concerning Ms. Wilson and has therefore intentionally lied. In contrast, the defense intends to present a more complete and accurate narrative. The defense will show that during the controversy about the “sixteen words” in the President’s 2003 State of the Union address and about Ambassador Wilson’s criticism of the Bush Administration, government officials, including Mr. Libby, viewed Ms. Wilson’s identity as at most a peripheral issue. To the extent that these officials were focused on Mr. Wilson, they were concerned with publicly disputing mistaken or misleading reports about his trip [to Niger] and his findings, not with where his wife worked.

In another part of the motion, the Libby defense team refers to Valerie Wilson’s role in the matter as “minor” and “not important” and also refers to the “falsity” of some of Joseph Wilson’s statements. Specifically, the motion says, “Contrary to Mr. Wilson’s claims, he did not debunk as forgeries documents suggesting that Iraq was attempting to purchase uranium from Africa.” It was claims like that, which received extensive coverage in the press and cried out for rebuttal, the lawyers argue, that demanded Libby’s attention–not the place of Wilson’s wife’s employment.

“If the jury learns this background information,” the Libby motion continues, “and also understands Mr. Libby’s additional focus on urgent national security matters, the jury will more easily appreciate how Mr. Libby may have forgotten or misremembered the snippets of conversation the government alleges were so memorable.”

And who actually leaked Valerie Wilson’s identity to Robert Novak, and was it a crime? The Libby defense team writes that it expects “witness testimony that within the government Ms. Wilson’s employment status was not regarded as classified, sensitive or secret, contrary to the allegations in the indictment.” And the motion states flatly that “the primary source for Mr. Novak’s article” was not only not Lewis Libby but was “an official from outside the White House.” [emphasis in the original] As for who that might be, the Libby team points the finger toward the State Department.

Specifically, the top of the State Department. The motion says, “The defense may call Mr. Powell to testify about a September 2003 meeting at the White House during which he is reported to have commented that everyone knows that Mr. Wilson’s wife works at the CIA. At the same meeting, Mr. Powell also reportedly mentioned a 2002 meeting during which Ms. Wilson suggested her husband for the CIA mission to Niger.” Later, the motion requests “Any notes from the September 2003 meeting in the Situation Room at which Colin Powell is reported to have said that (a) everyone knows that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and that (b) it was Mr. Wilson’s wife who suggested that the CIA send her husband on a mission to Niger.”

In other parts of the motion, the Libby team, echoing recent media reports, suggests that the trio of Powell, his former deputy Richard Armitage, and former top State Department official Marc Grossman knew about Valerie Wilson’s job and talked to reporters about it:

Documents pertaining to Mr. Wilson’s trip from Mr. Grossman’s files must also be examined carefully by the defense because Mr. Grossman may not be a disinterested witness. This week, Vanity Fair, the Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as other media outlets, reported that Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State, told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post that Ms. Wilson worked for the CIA. There has been media speculation that Mr. Woodward’s source and Mr. Novak’s source are the same person. If the facts ultimately show that Mr. Armitage or someone else from the State Department was also Mr. Novak’s primary source, then the State Department (and certainly not Mr. Libby) bears responsibility for the “leak” that led to the public disclosure of Ms. Wilson’s CIA identity.

As for the CIA, Libby contends that the agency, once the Wilson matter blew up, did its best to undercut Libby and the vice president’s office. It appears that Libby believes strongly, but does not have any proof, that the CIA was out to get Libby and his colleagues, and that therefore the testimony of any CIA officials might be suspect. “If CIA officials perceived that Mr. Tenet or the Agency were being unfairly criticized or scapegoated, these officials likely expressed their discontent about this bureaucratic infighting in email messages and other documents,” the Libby motion says. “The defense is entitled to review any such documents because they bear directly on potential bias against Mr. Libby by CIA witnesses.”

In the end, if Libby’s version of events is correct, not only did he not commit any crimes in the Wilson matter, but no one at the State Department or the CIA committed any crimes, either. All anyone is guilty of is cutthroat bureaucratic infighting–and having the misfortune of seeing that cutthroat bureaucratic infighting become the subject of a special prosecutor’s attention.

Fitzgerald will no doubt work hard to keep these issues out of the courtroom during what he contends is a straightforward perjury case. But surely what Libby is accused of lying about will ultimately be part of the trial. And it is in that way that Fitzgerald may have backed himself into a corner. Throughout the pre-trial motions in the case, he has argued, over and over, that it doesn’t matter who leaked Valerie Wilson’s identity, or why. It doesn’t matter if Wilson was covert. It doesn’t matter if the leak did any damage. In other words, the CIA leak is not relevant to the CIA leak case. Surely he will continue to argue that throughout the trial itself. But is that what his investigation–now in its third year–was really about?

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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