Daniel Schulman

Senior Editor

Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He is the author of the new Koch brothers biography, Sons of Wichita (Grand Central Publishing). Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.

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Libby Defense Lawyer: Scooter Scapegoated, Culprit is Karl

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 1:49 PM EST

The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, a dreary beige building in view of the Capitol, has seen its share of Washington scandals. The Watergate conspirators were tried here during the '70s, as was Oliver North, among other Iran-Contra figures, during the '80s. The late '90s brought the Lewinsky scandal and with it a press frenzy unlike any this court had ever seen. The plaza in front of the courthouse, then home to a huge media encampment, is still referred to as "Monica beach." This morning, with opening arguments set to begin in Scooter Libby's high-profile perjury and obstruction of justice case, Monica beach was a faint echo of its former self, with only a handful of reporters milling around a stand of TV cameras that were positioned to face the front of the courthouse. The real action was inside, where reporters, who had been confined to a makeshift press room during the 4-day jury selection process, massed in the hallway outside Judge Reggie Walton's courtroom awaiting the start of the trial.

Anticipating the media horde expected to attend, court officials have taken pains to bring some order to the inevitable mayhem, requiring journalists to apply for credentials to cover the trial and setting up an overflow room, where members of the public and the press can view the proceedings on a closed circuit feed. The proceedings are also viewable from the downstairs press gallery, where I've set up shop. Seated next to me is David Corn of The Nation, who is, somewhat ironically, the reporter who first spotlighted the leak of Valerie Plame's covert status in a July 16, 2003 article, raising the question of whether the leak had flouted the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. But, as Judge Walton stressed this morning, this case has nothing to do with whether the disclosure of Plame's identity broke the law. "What her actual status was and whether any damage would result from the disclosure of that status are totally irrelevant," he cautioned jurors. Rather, the case turns on the very narrow question of whether Libby lied to FBI investigators and a federal grand jury about his role in the leak.

In an opening statement that went on for more than an hour, Fitzgerald laid out his case against Libby, reconstructing the events leading up to and following the leak — events that first began to unfold, he told jurors, on January 28, 2003, long before Robert Novak's July 14 column outing Plame. That was the day when President Bush delivered his state of the union address and made the case for war with Iraq, including the infamous 16 words alleging that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium from Niger. Everything that transpired afterward, he said, flowed from that claim.

Fitzgerald zeroed on conversations, centering on Plame and her husband Joe Wilson, that took place between Libby and 5 administration officials in June 2003. These discussions seriously undercut Libby's claim to investigators that he first heard about Plame and her role at the CIA from reporters, in particular NBC's Tim Russert. At one point, Fitzgerald played the audio from Libby's grand jury testimony, in which he says, with apparent confidence, that Russert told him on July 10 "that Ambassador Wilson's wife works at the CIA and I was a little taken aback by that.... And I said, 'no, I don't know that.' And I said 'no, I don't know that,' because at that point I didn't not recall I had ever known this." (Russert, for his part, has said that this conversation, as Libby recalls it, never took place.) As Fitzgerald put it, "You can't learn something startling on Thursday that you were giving out on Monday and Tuesday."

Even though it seems pretty clear that Libby's statements to the grand jury are at odds with evidence that Fitzgerald has compiled, his lawyers will try to cast doubt on whether Libby lied, or, rather, failed to correctly recollect the details of conversations he'd had months before. "Scooter Libby is innocent," defense lawyer Ted Wells said in his opening statement. "He is totally innocent. He did not commit perjury. He did not commit obstruction of justice. He did not give any false statements to the FBI. He is an innocent man and he has been falsely accused." Wells also sought to cast doubt on the strength of Fitzgerald's case, saying, "This is a weak, paper-thin, superficial case about he-said she-said. No witnesses. No documents. No scientific evidence." More than a few times, Wells invoked a line that is clearly the mantra of Libby's defense: "This about words. This is about recollection. This about memory: Three calls. Three reporters. Three months later."

Wells did not dispute that Libby may have made false statements to investigators, nor did he dispute the fact that there had been a White House campaign to discredit Joe Wilson, saying that "some people at the White House... pushed reporters to write stories about Ms. Wilson." He added, "but Scooter Libby did not push any reporters to write a story about Ms. Wilson." Rather, Wells portrayed Libby as a scapegoat for another White House official (the man truly responsible for the leak, according to Wells), none other than "the architect" himself, Karl Rove. To this end, Wells produced a note allegedly penned by the vice president after a meeting with Libby held during the height of the Plame controversy in July 2003: "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," the note read. "That one staffer was Karl Rove," Wells said. (The "meat grinder," by the way, appears to be Wells' euphemism for the press -- and the fact that Libby was forced to run damage control about the veracity of the Niger claim.) Before this trial is over, we're expected to hear directly from the vice president, who will testify in Libby's defense. Will he, too, blame Karl Rove?

Stay tuned. More as the trial resumes after a lunch recess.

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Bob Ney Sentenced to 30 Months

| Fri Jan. 19, 2007 10:52 AM EST

The AP reports that Bob Ney, the former Ohio congressman who pled guilty on corruption charges stemming from the Abramoff scandal, will spend the next two-and-a-half years at a federal prison in Morgantown, West Virginia. Apparently, the sentence was even harsher than prosecutors had originally recommended. Explaining her reasoning to Ney, Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said, "Both your constituents and the public trusted you to represent them honestly."

The Mysterious Case of the Federal Prosecutor Firings

| Thu Jan. 18, 2007 12:17 PM EST

Josh Marshall weighs in today with an interesting column in The Hill about the rash of federal prosecutors who have apparently been forced out by the Bush administration in recent weeks. Among the latest to go is San Diego US Attorney Carol Lam, whose office prosecuted the Randy "Duke" Cunningham bribery case and who announced her resignation on Tuesday. "The current work of the other fired USAs has less direct political implications," Marshall writes. "But several seem to have had ongoing investigations of allegedly corrupt Republicans."

While the motivation behind the firings remains a mystery, a look at the people who are being appointed to fill the vacancies is instructive.

Consider the estimable J. Timothy Griffin, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas since Dec. 20 of last year.

If you hadn't heard about Griffin's appointment, don't feel bad; the guy he replaced hadn't either. Griffin's appointment was announced Dec. 15, before the then-U.S. attorney Bud Cummins had even been given a chance to resign. Cummins got the call on his cell phone telling him he was out the same day the announcement was made. He was out hiking with his son at the time....

A quick perusal of Griffin's resume shows that his more-or-less exclusive vocation has been doing opposition research on Democrats on behalf of the Republican Party. Until recently, he was head of oppo research at the White House, working directly for Karl Rove. In 1999 and 2000, he was deputy research director for the Republican National Committee. In 2002 he returned as research director for the national GOP and stayed on for the next three years.

Before getting involved formally in oppo research he worked in what you might call de facto oppo research positions. In 1995 and 1996 he was associate independent counsel in the Henry Cisneros investigation. And after that he headed up to the Hill to work for Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) investigating political contributions from Asian-Americans to Bill Clinton.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, according to Time, back in 2000, when he was in charge of digging up dirt on Al Gore, he apparently had a poster hanging on the wall behind his desk which read: "On my command — unleash hell on Al."

Plame Case: Fitzgerald is Getting Nifonged

| Wed Jan. 17, 2007 4:32 PM EST

What do Patrick Fitzgerald and Mike Nifong share in common? Not much, beyond the fact that both are prosecutors who have pursued politically fraught cases. But don't tell that to Investor's Business Daily, which published an editorial today calling for "all the rogue prosecutors" to be reigned in. The paper's prime examples of prosecutorial zealotry are Nifong, who recused himself last week from the Duke sexual assault case, and Fitzgerald, whose perjury and obstruction of justice case against Lewis "Scooter" Libby began in D.C. district court on Tuesday. "Like the Duke lacrosse players, Scooter Libby faces jail for alleged involvement in a crime that was never committed, pursued by a vindictive prosecutor," the editorial reasons. "And also like the Duke case, it's a national disgrace."

In lumping Fitzgerald with Nifong, whose case against the Duke lacrosse players appears at best deeply flawed and potentially politically motivated, Investor's Business Daily is only the latest to deploy this disingenuous bait and switch. Making a similar argument in an op-ed last summer, columnist Jack Kelly cast the Plame and Duke cases as part of the same cautionary tale. "This should remind us the greater threat to our civil liberties comes not from the measures the Bush administration has taken to protect us from terrorists, but from prosecutors who abuse their power for political purposes." More recently the columnist posed this question to his readers: "Is to 'fitzgerald' a synonym for to 'nifong?'"

Perhaps it is, if you base your facts on the Plame leak case on the same, well worn set of conservative talking points used over and over to portray Libby as a victim of liberal activism.  nifong_fitzgerald.jpg As the argument goes, since the charges against Libby derive from Fitzgerald's investigation of a question he was ultimately unable to settle – whether the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA operative constituted a breach of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act – they should never have been filed in the first place. As Investor's Business Daily put it, "Like District Attorney Michael Nifong in the Duke case, Fitzgerald knew early that he had no real crime and no real criminal. But he had to come up with something. So he charged with lying someone who in his job got hundreds of phone calls every day and talked to dozens of reporters because his memory of earlier conversations differed with those reporters' notes." (It's worth noting that Libby's defense attorneys are likely to make a similar argument.) For those who adhere to this view, the revelation last fall that former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, known as a critic of the Iraq war, was Robert Novak's initial source for his column outing Plame, was icing on the cake, providing further evidence that the leak of her covert status was not the act of political retribution administration critics claimed it to be. Case closed.

Of course, if government officials were to believe there are no penalties for lying to a grand jury or impeding a federal investigation, they would have little impetus to do anything but obfuscate. (In terms of Libby, the courts certainly seem to regard his alleged crimes as serious enough. If convicted on all five counts, he could be fined up to $1.25 million and sentenced to 30 years in prison.) As for Armitage, while he reportedly revealed Plame's identity inadvertently, that doesn't preclude the possibility that a separate, malicious effort was underway within the Office of the Vice President to discredit Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, for debunking the administration's claims about Iraq's efforts to obtain yellowcake uranium. The Libby trial, however, will not center on the motivations behind the leak, but on whether Libby lied about his role in it.

As far as the Fitzgerald-Nifong comparisons go, that's just the latest salvo in a partisan mud-slinging campaign that has been part of the Plame case since the beginning. But none of that matters at this point. The only question now is whether Fitzgerald has a case against Libby -- and that's in the hands of a jury to decide.

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