This morning a pool of 60 potential jurors entered Courtroom 16 at the U.S. District Court in Washington as the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, got under way.
Opening statements are slated to begin on Jan. 22. By the end of the day, prosecutors and defense attorneys had questioned only nine potential jurors, and three had been dismissed.
As the jurors were brought in they were greeted by Judge Reggie Walton. Each took a brief oath, affirming to tell the truth under questioning by the judge and lawyers for the government and defense.
Walton read the nine-page jury questionnaire, which included a list of 80 potential witnesses and names that would be mentioned during the trial. The names were provided to see if jurors had biases against the individuals who may appear as witnesses or who would be mentioned during the trial, which is expected to last four to six weeks.
The names included well-known Washington journalists and influential government officials from the CIA, State Department and the White House, and included Cheney, who is expected to testify at the trial as part of Libby's defense.
Libby was charged last year with lying to a federal grand jury and FBI investigators about how he came to know the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA officer married to former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson. Plame's name was published by political columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003, and Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate the matter later that year.
Fitzgerald's 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. Fitzgerald's investigation focused on discussions among administration officials after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about an unnamed ambassador traveling to Niger in a May 2003 column, and 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.
In an interview with ABC News' David Schertler, a former federal prosecutor said, "The government's theory is that the vice president's office was extremely concerned with any kind of press articles that were critical of the reasons as to why we were going to war in Iraq."
The jurors were asked if they had ever applied for a job at the CIA or knew people who worked at the CIA. Some of the jurors were asked if they understood what the word "covert" meant in relation to the CIA's activities. One woman said, "A lot of what the CIA does is overtly covert. … My father was a Methodist minister. He didn't run in those circles."
The personalities involved in the case included former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who would later admit to being Novak's source for the leak, and journalists Tim Russert of NBC News and Judith Miller, formerly with The New York Times.
Libby's discussions with Russert and Miller are key parts of the obstruction of justice charge against Libby. The government alleges that Libby made false statements and committed perjury when discussing Plame with the reporters, telling FBI agents and a federal grand jury that he learned about Plame from the reporters while Fitzgerald said Libby learned Plame's identity from CIA briefers, Cheney and members of Cheney's staff about a month before Libby spoke to the reporters and a month before the Novak column appeared.
Libby's lawyers plan to argue that Libby simply forgot about the specifics of discussions with reporters because he was overwhelmed with pressing matters of national security. "It is quite possible that the two people involved in that conversation simply recalled different details," Michael Levy, a former prosecutor, told ABC News in an interview.
In November Walton ruled that Libby could not use a memory expert to describe how memory works, but Libby's attorney's will be allowed to argue that he was so busy with pressing matters, especially national security matters, that he could not accurately remember certain events and discussions.
Court papers filed by the Libby team have said that he was dealing with serious matters, including threatened attacks on U.S. interests by al Qaeda, Hezbollah and other terror groups; that Libby was working on matters about North Korea and nuclear weapons development, as well as working on issues concerning Iran's nuclear weapons program and the harboring of al Qaeda members in the country.
In trying to whittle down the pool of 60 potential jurors to a jury of 12 and four alternates, the potential jurors were brought in individually to answer questions before Walton, the prosecutors and Libby's lawyers. The potential jurors were seated in the witness stand next to the judge as they explored their backgrounds to see if they had negative views of law enforcement, had been jurors in other trials, or criminal histories, but many questions focused on their views of the Bush administration and the debate to go to war with Iraq.
Walton asked the jurors, "Mr. Libby is the former chief of staff and National Security adviser of Vice President Cheney. Do any of you have feelings or opinions about the Bush administration or any of its policies or actions, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to give a former member of the Bush administration a fair trial?"
Questioning one female juror whose cousin was serving in the military in Iraq, Libby's defense attorney Ted Wells said, "There is a real possibility Vice President Cheney will be sitting in that chair" as the defense attorney pointed to the witness stand.
One young male juror who worked as a financial analyst was also asked about Cheney but was blunt, saying, "I don't have the highest opinion of him." The man said he had read a lot about the CIA leak case on Internet blogs and in the newspaper and described it as "standard Washington politics."
Fitzgerald and Walton have said they hope the case will focus on the charges against Libby and not be about the war in Iraq or the faulty intelligence that led to the war.
After one young potential juror told the court and lawyers that she'd voted for Bush, Fitzgerald said before the judge that he was concerned the questions were getting too political. In the absence of the jurors, Fitzgerald said, "Now were finding out how people voted."
If he is found guilty, Libby faces a maximum of 30 years in prison and fines of $1.25 million.