Politics & Policy

The Libby Trial: Does Everybody Have a Bad Memory?

Ari Fleischer tells one story, a reporter another. Who's correct?

The big news from the Lewis Libby trial on Monday was former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer’s testimony that Libby told him, over lunch one day at the White House mess, the “hush-hush” news about former ambassador Joseph Wilson, Wilson’s wife, and the famous trip to Niger.

#ad#“I recall Mr. Libby saying to me, he reiterated that the White House did not send Ambassador Wilson to Niger,” Fleischer testified. “He said, ‘Ambassador Wilson was sent by his wife… his wife works at the CIA…He said [Wilson’s] wife works at the CPD [Counterproliferation Division].”

The day the two men met for lunch, Monday, July 7, 2003, was the day after Joseph Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times and appeared on Meet the Press to attack the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq. It was the hot topic of the moment, and Libby made sure Fleischer knew the news about Wilson’s wife was inside stuff. “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.

But Fleischer didn’t get the idea that Mrs. Wilson’s job status was classified. “I thought Mr. Libby was saying this is kind of newsy, something nobody knows about,” Fleischer said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought this information would be classified.”

Later that day, Fleischer was scheduled to leave with President Bush on a trip to Africa. On the flight over, Fleischer testified that he was sitting near White House communications director Dan Bartlett. Bartlett was reading a document when he said, according to Fleischer, “I can’t believe they sent Ambassador Wilson to Africa. His wife sent him. She works for the CIA.” (Fleischer wasn’t sure whether Bartlett said “they” sent Wilson or “he” sent Wilson, but it didn’t really change the nature of Bartlett’s comment.)

Fleischer said Bartlett, even though he was speaking aloud, wasn’t talking to anyone in particular, and the two men didn’t discuss it. “Dan was basically venting,” Fleischer testified. “He saw something in this document that caused him to vent.” Although Fleischer didn’t ask Bartlett what he was talking about, it appears the document Bartlett was reading was a State Department report on the Wilson mission that discussed the involvement of Wilson’s wife.

Fleischer said he connected Bartlett’s statement with the tip he had gotten earlier from Libby. Later, in Africa, Fleischer testified, he passed on the information about Mrs. Wilson to two reporters, David Gregory of NBC News and John Dickerson, then of Time. “I recall saying to them, ‘If you want to know who sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger, it was his wife,’“ Fleischer testified. “‘She works there.’“

It was at that moment that the question of memory — the issue that is key to Libby’s defense — came up again at the trial. It wasn’t brought up in court by the lawyers but by Dickerson’s own accounts of his conversation with Fleischer. Last year, in a story with a title he might live to regret — “Where’s My Subpoena?” — Dickerson wrote of a “senior administration official,” apparently Fleischer, who told Dickerson it would be interesting to find out who sent Wilson to Niger. “Some low-level person at the CIA was responsible for the mission,” Dickerson wrote. “I was told I should go ask the CIA who sent Wilson.” In that and subsequent articles, Dickerson made clear that Fleischer suggested that Dickerson look for the source of the Wilson trip but said nothing about Wilson’s wife.

And then, on the witness stand Monday, Fleischer said flat-out that he told Dickerson (and Gregory, too) that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and sent her husband on the trip. Dickerson quickly countered that he still didn’t recall the conversation that way. “I have a different memory,” Dickerson wrote in an account in Slate. “My recollection is that during a presidential trip to Africa in July 2003, Ari and another senior administration official had given me only hints. They told me to go inquire about who sent Wilson to Niger. As far as I can remember — and I am pretty sure I would remember it — neither of them ever told me that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.”

“So, why was Ari testifying about something that I don’t think ever happened?” Dickerson asked.

“I don’t know.”

Dickerson has said that he was never interviewed by CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Now, however, it is possible that Libby’s defense, which is looking for anything that will poke holes in the credibility of Fitzgerald’s witnesses, will want to hear from Dickerson. (He’s available; Dickerson was sitting in the courtroom as Fleischer testified.) Libby’s lawyers would no doubt use Dickerson’s version of events to raise questions about Fleischer’s memory, just as they earlier raised questions about the recollections of top State Department official Carl Grossman and top CIA official Robert Grenier.

Perhaps even more so, because Fleischer’s story is crucial to Fitzgerald’s case. The testimony so far has established that Libby was told about Mrs. Wilson by June 12, 2003. That’s not an insurmountable problem for Libby, since defense attorney Ted Wells argued in opening statements that Libby originally told investigators that he recalled having been told about Wilson’s wife by the vice president around that time. Libby argues, however, that given the crush of events in the next month, he forgot that he had been told about Mrs. Wilson and thus felt a “sense of surprise” when, Libby claims, NBC’s Tim Russert told him about Mrs. Wilson on July 10 or 11. But if the jury believes Fleischer’s account that Libby passed on the “hush-hush” news about Mrs. Wilson on July 7, they’ll have a hard time believing that Libby felt a sense of surprise when he heard the same thing a few days later (even if they believe Libby’s account that Russert told him, which Russert denies.) “You can’t learn something startling on Thursday that you’re giving out on Monday and Tuesday,” Fitzgerald told the jury in opening arguments.

Libby will argue, in turn, that that is the way he remembered things when he first talked to the FBI three months later, in October 2003. But given the timeline, it appears Libby’s best defense will be to argue that everyone in this case seems to have forgotten something, and Ari Fleischer’s Dickerson problem — or John Dickerson’s Fleischer problem — is just more proof of that point.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book 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.

Byron York — Byron York is is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.

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