The lawyers delivered opening statements in Scooter Libby’s perjury trial today. The news accounts are lurid, but puzzling. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s narrative followed the anticipated script. The administration wanted to discredit Joseph Wilson, who was attacking President Bush’s Iraq policy, and telling reporters that Wilson’s wife was a CIA employee related to that effort:
During his hour-long opening statement in the morning, Fitzgerald said that Libby had lied to conceal that he and Cheney had been actively trying to discredit Wilson, the war critic sent by the CIA to Africa to explore reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger to make nuclear weapons.
The strong part of the prosecution’s case is not the motive attributed to Libby, but rather the apparent contrast between Libby’s testimony and that of other executive branch employees:
Fitzgerald said Libby claimed he had learned Plame’s identity from NBC’s Tim Russert in July 2003, although he actually learned it from Cheney and several other administration officials weeks earlier.
Fitzgerald said Libby’s claims of memory lapses to a grand jury are implausible. The prosecutor noted that Libby told the grand jury he felt he was learning the information as if it were new when he heard it from Russert on July 10 and had forgotten he heard it first from Cheney and other officials weeks earlier. But Fitzgerald said Libby was providing that same information to the White House press secretary and New York Times reporters July 7 and 8.
“You can’t learn something startling on Thursday that you’re giving out Monday and Tuesday of the same week,” Fitzgerald said.
But the Washington Post gives top billing to the opening statement by Libby’s lawyer, Theodore Wells, headlining its story: “Defense Attorney Paints Libby As Scapegoat:”
I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was “put through the meat grinder” by the White House shortly after the Iraq war began, scapegoated to cloak the leak of a CIA officer’s identity to the media by presidential adviser Karl Rove, Libby’s lawyer contended today as Libby’s perjury trial began.
Wells said that Libby was directed by Vice President Cheney to talk to reporters about flawed pre-war intelligence but that the White House failed to defend him, as it did Rove, when the matter became public.
Wells said Libby complained to Cheney during the fall of 2003 that he was being made a “sacrificial lamb” as the White House tried to protect Rove, who was also then facing allegations that he had leaked Plame’s identity.
“They’re trying to set me up. They want me to be the sacrificial lamb,” Wells said, recalling the conversation between Libby and Cheney. “I will not be sacrificed so Karl Rove can be protected.”
I am at a loss to understand how this narrative can possibly make sense. Other officials could have “scapegoated” Libby by telling investigators that he was the only one who talked to reporters about Plame. But as far as we know, they didn’t; and, in any event, since he admits that he did discuss Plame with reporters, such “scapegoating” would be immaterial. Or, perhaps, Vice President Cheney could have “scapegoated” Libby by ordering Libby to tell investigators that he heard about Plame from reporters, and not from Cheney. But Cheney obviously did not do this. The reason the prosecutor knows that Libby “actually learned it from Cheney and several other administration officials weeks earlier” is that those administration officials, apparently including Cheney, so testified. And, in any event, it is not Libby’s defense that he committed perjury at Cheney’s direction.
So in what conceivable sense could Libby have been “scapegoated” or made a “sacrificial lamb”? His prosecution arises solely from the fact that he told the grand jury that he had first heard about Plame from reporters, when the testimony of all other witnesses, apparently including both executive branch employees and reporters, is to the contrary. Libby now admits, evidently, that his testimony was wrong, but attributes his mistake to a faulty memory. How could Cheney, Rove, or anyone else have been responsible for Libby’s memory?
Maybe you had to hear the whole thing to make sense of it; the opening statements went on for several hours. As reported, though, I can’t see how Wells’ “scapegoat” theory can possibly be a coherent interpretation of the facts.
The other possibility, of course, is that Wells knows that the jury consists of Democrats, most of whom are hostile to the Bush administration. Libby was a high official in that administration, and the jury’s verdict will depend largely on its subjective assessment of his credibility in claiming a memory lapse. So it would be no wonder if Wells thought that his first order of business was to tell the jury that his client was not one of those nasty Karl Rove Republicans.
On the positive side, it appears that Wells will defend Libby’s actions in responding to Wilson’s lies:
Cheney was properly concerned when Wilson falsely implied that Cheney should have known about Wilson’s conclusion that Iraq was not trying to purchase nuclear weapons material.
Libby, he said, was appropriately deputized by a furious Cheney to set the record straight.
“Was he mad?” Wells asked. “You doggone betcha.”
Maybe by the time the trial is over, the Post will no longer be saying, as it did today, that “Wilson concluded [reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger to make nuclear weapons] were baseless.” They could start by reading their own reporting. We discussed the linked Post article here.
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