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.