Defense: Libby Was a Scapegoat for Rove

Jan. 23, 2007 — -- Defense lawyers in the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby trial say Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff was merely a scapegoat for Karl Rove's role in revealing the identity of a former CIA officer.

Many say the leak was in retaliation for the agent's husband contradicting Bush's statements in Bush's State of the Union address four years ago.

Opening statements in Libby's perjury trial got under way this morning, pitting Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald against defense attorney Theodore Wells.

While Fitzgerald ticked off the government's allegations that Libby had lied to the FBI and grand jury, Wells told the jury that divisions among the White House; Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist; and the office of the vice president were the central part of Libby's defense.

"They're trying to set me up. They want me to be the sacrificial lamb," Wells told the jury, recounting a conversation Libby had with the White House. "I will not be sacrificed so Karl Rove can be protected."

A leak investigation began in 2003, after syndicated columnist Robert Novak revealed that a chief Bush administration critic, Joseph Wilson, was married to CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Wilson had written a New York Times column rebutting the president's claims that Iraq was actively trying to obtain uranium.

Revealing the identity of a CIA officer is a crime. Rove was one of two sources for Novak's story.

No one, including Rove, has been charged with the leak, but Libby is accused of lying to investigators and obstructing the probe into the leak.

Fitzgerald has painted the backdrop of a political scandal as the motivation for Libby's lying.

"Wilson made an explosive charge. … He had launched an attack against the White House," Fitzgerald said. "The White House pushed back."

In laying out the timeline for the jury, Fitzgerald went back to the 2003 State of the Union address and proceeded to Libby's final grand jury testimony.

Libby did more than just not remember the facts or events correctly, Fitzgerald said. He was consumed with the Wilson affair, going to such great lengths as pulling CIA officers out of meetings to get information about Wilson.

Fitzgerald detailed how Libby had worked on the Wilson affair and, when it turned into a serious criminal investigation, allegedly lied.

On June 11, 2003, Libby called the CIA late in the afternoon and requested that Iraq issues manager Robert Grenier be pulled from a meeting to talk with him about the Wilson matter.

Libby also called Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper from a small office at Andrews Air Force Base as he returned from a trip with Cheney on July 11.

"The defendant obstructed the truth, lied to the FBI, and obstructed justice," Fitzgerald said.

'Not Going to Protect One Staffer'

But Wells told the jury that Libby had done nothing wrong and was instead set up as a scapegoat by forces in the White House.

"It's ironic that President Bush is giving the State of the Union address tonight almost four years to the day," Wells said in his opening statement.

It was other administration officials, not Libby, who were talking about Plame and her employment at the CIA.

One note from Cheney that the defense attorney presented read: "Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."

In referencing the Novak column, Wells told the jury that Libby was not a source for Novak, who was the first to make Plame's name public. Instead, he said, it was Rove.

Wells told the jury that the view in the White House was to "protect Karl Rove, sacrifice 'Scooter' Libby."

"Karl Rove was viewed as a political genius. … He had to be protected," Wells said to the jury. "He's the lifeblood of the Republican Party. … 'Scooter' Libby didn't push any reporter to write stories."

Going Beyond Novak: Media Witnesses

In an attempt to link Libby's credibility with Cheney, Wells told the jury that during his first FBI interview Libby told investigators, "I learned about it from the vice president of the United States on or about June 12th."

When it came to Iraq, Libby had been instructed to speak to numerous reporters on the issue of prewar intelligence. Libby spoke with as many as 10 reporters, yet three already knew or asked about Wilson's wife. Wells said Libby's call to Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," was made to complain about MSNBC's "Hardball" coverage of the Iraq-Wilson flap.

Regarding Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper, Wells said, "Mr. Cooper will tell you that Karl Rove, the president's right-hand man, that Rove told him [Cooper] about the wife."

Wells told the jury that right after Cooper spoke to Rove he sent e-mails to his editors. "You see it right there in the e-mail," Wells said. After speaking to Libby, Wells said, there is no reference to Wilson's wife in Cooper's e-mails and notes.

Wells also tried to show holes in the government's case by questioning their investigative tactics. Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, was granted immunity in the CIA leak investigation, the defense attorney said.

Wells also pointed out that one of the main prosecution witnesses, Russert, was interviewed by the FBI for only 22 minutes, and that he was granted a deal by investigators to be asked questions about his conversation with Libby.

Russert was possibly confused about his conversations, the defense said. Right around the time Russert spoke to Libby, NBC reporters David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell were working on the Wilson story. Russert was never asked about the two other reporters.

Wells also said that Libby would have no reason to lie to the FBI about his conversations with Russert because he had been told right around this time that by Karl Rove that Bob Novak had written a story about Wilson's wife working for the CIA.

"The whole prosecution is built on a false premise," Wells said.

Another crucial prosecution witness will be New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who, according to Wells, obtained Plame's name from multiple sources.

"To put some reporter [Russert] between him [Libby] and Miller and Cooper is just stupid," Wells said of the government's argument.

Libby was having all these conversations with reporters in addition to his normal duties of serving as Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser.

As security adviser, Libby often started his day at 7 a.m. by focusing on issues such as al Qaeda plots to smuggle anthrax and nuclear weapons, plots to kill the president and his top aides, Iran-North Korean nuclear weapon development and al Qaeda plots to bomb U.S. skyscrapers with tanker trucks -- not on Wilson's wife, Wells said.

Libby also worked with CIA Director George Tenet, who was preparing to draft a statement acknowledging that the CIA had been wrong on the prewar Iraqi intelligence.

"Tenet was to draft a statement that the CIA screwed it up. ... The drafting of the statement was very contentious. He was not excited about stepping up to the plate," Wells said.

The skilled defense attorney also chipped away at Fitzgerald's argument, noting that two key CIA officers, Grenier and presidential CIA briefer Craig Schmall, had not recalled any discussions with Libby about Wilson's wife when originally interviewed by the FBI.

It was not until their third interviews, before the grand jury, that both men recall having had discussions with Libby.

First Witness Called

After opening statements, the government called its first witness, Marc Grossman, former undersecretary of state for policy. Grossman said he learned that Plame had organized Wilson's trip to Niger from a State Department employee and a State Department intelligence report.

Grossman also said before he first spoke to the FBI, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage admitted to him that he had disclosed Plame's name to Robert Novak. Grossman said he was "shocked" by this.

His testimony continues on Wednesday morning.