Libby Pretrial Hearing Could Offer New Clues in CIA Leak Investigation

A pretrial hearing today in the government's case against Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, could provide hints and clues in the ongoing investigation of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and reveal new details in the CIA leak investigation.

Much speculation has focused on Rove's role in the investigation of conversations he had with Libby and reporters at the center of the case.

Scooter Libby is due to appear before Judge Reggie Walton, along with special counsel Pat Fitzgerald and the Libby defense team, to discuss several issues in the case, which is set to go to trial in January 2007.

Libby was charged in the CIA leak case in October 2005 for lying to a federal grand jury and investigators about how he came to know the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA employee married to former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson. Plame's name was published by political columnist Robert Novak in July 2003, and Fitzgerald was appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate the matter later that year.

The investigation centered on a plot to discredit Wilson, who disputed claims made by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union Address that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger. Government investigators and Fitzgerald have looked closely at discussions among administration officials after Wilson wrote a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed that disputed the administration's intelligence claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Monday's hearing will examine the status of materials requested by the Libby defense to help the defense prepare for the trial. The Libby defense suffered a setback earlier this month when Walton denied many of the wide-ranging documents Libby had requested from government agencies, saying the documents did not relate to the perjury or obstruction of justice charges against him.

In his June 2 ruling, Walton said "documents and information which may have bearing on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the president's statement on that topic -- why the United States invaded Iraq, and the circumstances surrounding ambassador Wilson's trip to Niger and his reported findings -- are wholly immaterial to this case."

The hearing may offer some insight into Fitzgerald's investigation of Rove's statements made before the grand jury. Speculation about the status of the ongoing investigation has consumed media organizations with false reports of Rove's indictment being noted on the Internet.

The judge is seeking to keep the January 2007 trial date he has set for the case and has noted several times that the trial will not be a forum for debating the war in Iraq. Walton also noted in his recent order that "the propriety of the Iraq war or related matters leading up to the war ... are not the basis for the charged offenses. At best, these events have merely an abstract relationship to the charged offenses."

The hearing could offer more details on discussions between Cheney and Libby about Wilson. Fitzgerald and his team have recently disclosed in court papers that the vice president took notes on a copy of Wilson's New York Times op-ed, which included references to Wilson's wife sending him on "a junket." There were alleged reports that, she had directed him to go to Niger.

Prosecutors in the case want to show Cheney's notes at trial -- something Libby and his lawyers have adamantly opposed. Fitzgerald said the notes from Cheney are key in the government's case. "The vice president's handwritten notes on a clipping of the Wilson op-ed -- which reflect his views concerning Mr. Wilson and his wife -- are evidence of the views the vice president communicated [to] his chief of staff ... during the period immediately following the publication of the Wilson op-ed."

Fitzgerald added that Cheney's notes "corroborate other evidence regarding these communications, which are central to the government's proof that [the] defendant knowingly made false statements to federal agents and the grand jury."

The Libby defense has said that Cheney's notes on Wilson's op-ed should not be shown to the jury during the trial. Libby's lawyers maintain that Libby did not see the op-ed until it was shown to him by FBI agents working the investigation in November 2003.

Documents filed by Fitzgerald and his team of prosecutors on May 24 alluded that Cheney could be called as a witness at the trial. A footnote in the filing notes reads, "Contrary to defendant's assertion, the government has not represented that it does not intend to call the vice president as a witness at trial."

Walton will discuss the issue of early trial subpoenas with lawyers at today's hearing. Special counsel Fitzgerald has indicated that government witnesses during the trial will include Ari Fleischer, two CIA daily briefers and former State Department official Marc Grossman. The defense indicated in previous hearings that it will call Karl Rove, Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame.

The hearing could also deal with issues of executive privilege. Fitzgerald has said that many of the documents requested by Libby were not related to the central merits of the perjury case and contained significant portions of high-level government deliberations.

To help Libby prepare his defense for the trial, government lawyers have provided thousands of pages of documents collected and reviewed during their investigation.

The hearing is expected to offer key insights into the Libby strategy and progress in the case, with the trial about six months away.