It’s something the public rarely gets to see — the shadow world of Washington politics, that complex interplay between reporters and the government they cover. Most politicians — and many journalists, too — would probably prefer to keep it that way.
Unfortunately for them, the trial of the vice president’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, now in its second week, has pulled back the curtain. The picture is none too flattering, particularly for the Bush administration—which, as a number of key witnesses have now confirmed, actively endeavored to undercut former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson’s revelation about what he didn’t find in Niger (evidence that Iraq had sought to buy uranium) was seen as damaging the administration’s rationale for invading Iraq, and so officials set to work digging up and doling out information that compromised the cover of Wilson’s wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame.
In the days leading up to today’s much-anticipated appearance by former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, we’ve been treated to a rare glimpse of the White House spin machine courtesy of administration officials who, when not under oath, would not be expected to speak with such candor. Their job, after all, was to dodge, to duck, to deflect — to make sure damaging news, if it had to get out, was slipped into the news cycle on a Friday afternoon.
“Fewer people pay attention to it late on Friday,” Cathie Martin, the vice president’s former communications director and now a communications assistant to the president, explained on Thursday. “Fewer people pay attention when it’s reported on Saturday.” Further illuminating the administration’s PR operation were Martin’s notes of a media strategy she’d been asked by Libby to devise during the height of the Wilson controversy. The first option on her list: book the vice president on “Meet the Press,” where, she believed, he could “control the message.” The second: “leak to Sanger-Pincus-newsmags,” she wrote, referring to David Sanger of the New York Times and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. Martin, the wife of FCC chairman Kevin Martin, also revealed that at one point the vice president himself was orchestrating the PR campaign, even dictating talking points for his deputy, Libby, to use in response to questions from Time‘s Matt Cooper.
We also heard from Ari Fleischer, the former White House spokesman who is now the president of his own communications firm. Before resigning in the summer of 2003, Fleischer had the unenviable task of coming up with new and creative non-responses to the pointed questions hurled at him by the White House press corps, as the administration’s case for war came increasingly under suspicion. Initially, Fleischer had defended the Niger story, but in July 2003, as it came further into doubt, he was directed to soften his responses. “I had been told to be careful not to stand by the 16 words, that the ground might be shifting on that,” Fleischer, who received immunity in exchange for cooperating with prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation, testified yesterday. “You can’t say yes. You can’t say no. At that briefing, I basically punted. I said yes and no.”
In his testimony, Fleischer, like other witnesses before him, contradicted Libby’s version of events — specifically his claim to the FBI that NBC’s Tim Russert brought up Plame’s indentity during a phone conversation on July 10 and that he believed he was hearing this news for the very first time. (Russert says that Plame never came up during this conversation.) On July 7, Fleischer said yesterday, on the day after Wilson’s op-ed about the Niger trip appeared in the New York Times, Libby told him that Wilson had been sent to Niger by his wife, not by the vice president’s office. “I just remember him saying that she worked for the CIA and for the counterproliferation division,” Fleischer said. “This is hush-hush. This is on the QT,” Libby told him. “Not many people know about this.”
Aboard Air Force One en route to Africa days later, Fleischer testified, he heard then-White House communications director Dan Bartlett mention the same information, “venting” that the media was linking the vice president to Wilson’s trip. “His wife sent him,” Bartlett said, according to Fleischer. “She works at the CIA.” Fleischer said he later imparted this information to two reporters traveling with the presidential delegation, NBC’s David Gregory and John Dickerson, who then worked for Time but is now Slate’s chief political correspondent.
Here’s where an already murky case gets murkier.
After Libby’s indictment in October 2005, Gregory, whose surprise role in the case came out on the first day of Libby’s trial, made a point of mentioning on-air that no one had contacted him to leak Plame’s identity. “I should just point out that nobody called me at any point,” he said, adding, “I just wanted to note that.” Since his name came out in connection with the case, Gregory has remained mum, declining to elaborate on his role, even to a fellow NBC colleague who emailed him for comment on the opening day of the trial. But if Fleischer’s recollections are correct, then Gregory misled his viewers, perhaps intentionally, for motivations that are unclear.
And here’s where things take another turn. Dickerson, who was stunned to hear his name come up yesterday while he was in the courtroom covering the trial, recalls his conversation with Fleischer a bit differently. “I had talked to Ari on July 11 and remember him telling me to investigate who sent Wilson,” Dickerson wrote yesterday. In other words, Fleischer never actually disclosed that Plame worked for the CIA, according to Dickerson. “So, how to explain Ari’s testimony?” Dickerson wrote. “I’ve covered him for 12 years, since I reported on tax policy and he was a spokesman for the Ways and Means committee, and he’s never lied to me. Shaded, wiggled, and driven me around the bend with his spin, yes…. But he never outright lied, and I don’t see how it would be in his interest here. More likely, he admitted to prosecutors more than he may have actually done because better to err on the side of assuming he disclosed too much than assuming he gave over too little.” As Dickerson points out, his recollections complicate things in two ways. On a personal level, it could mean that he will go from covering the trial to testifying at it. And, in the context of this case, these conflicting recollections could aid the memory-lapse defense being deployed by Libby’s defense team.
By Tuesday, though, the focus had mercifully shifted away from Dickerson to Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in prison during the summer and fall of 2005 before revealing that Libby was the source who had tipped her off that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. One of the enduring mysteries of this case is why Miller chose jail over testifying—since after her release Libby’s lawyer said publicly that Libby had already lifted his confidentiality pledge long before Miller was locked up. Already a divisive figure in the Times newsroom for her role pushing the administration’s WMD claims, by the time she was released from prison she had become even more controversial. Some believed she had dragged the Times into an ill-advised First Amendment dispute that could have far-reaching implications for journalists’ ability to protect their confidential sources. Her own account of her role in the CIA leak case, which appeared in the Times in October 2005, would be her last article for the paper.
Miller took the stand on Tuesday afternoon, following the testimony of the vice president’s chief of staff and former counsel, David Addington, who testified at one point that Libby told him bluntly “I didn’t do it.”
Miller’s testimony centered on three conversations she’d had with Libby in June and July 2003. At the time Miller had just returned from Iraq, where she’d been embedded with an army unit searching for weapons of mass destruction. “When I returned,” Miller testified, “I was surprised to see that there was a great debate building in the U.S., a very angry one,” over whether the administration had misled the country into war with Iraq. Back in New York, she said, she was assigned to a Times unit specifically charged with investigating whether the intelligence underpinning the administration’s case for war was “flawed or distorted.” Her particular assignment was to look into what had gone awry with the military’s “actual hunt for weapons of mass destruction.”
Miller’s first meeting with Libby took place in the Old Executive Office Building on June 23, 2003. “Mr. Libby appeared to me to be agitated and frustrated and angry,” she said. “He was a very low key and controlled guy, but he seemed annoyed.” Libby, Miller went on, “was concerned that the CIA was beginning to backpedal to try and distance itself from the unequivocal intelligence estimates it had provided before the war.” Libby, according to Miller, accused the CIA of waging a “perverted war of leaks.” “He said that nobody had come to the White House from the CIA and said, ‘Mr. President, this is not correct, this is not right.'”
The talk soon turned to Wilson. Libby said that the vice president’s office had recently learned that the former ambassador had been dispatched by the CIA, but had not previously been aware of the mission. “He said they never got a read out about what Mr. Wilson had or had not found on his trip.” Wilson’s wife also came up during this conversation. “When Mr. Libby was discussing the intelligence reporting from the CIA, he said that his wife, referring to Wilson, worked in the bureau….In the context of our discussion, I quickly understood this to be the CIA.”
Libby was still agitated by what he saw as a CIA smear campaign, Miller said, when they met again in the dining room of Washington’s St. Regis Hotel on July 8; when the topic of the Niger-uranium claim came up, he asked that his comments be attributed to “a former Hill staffer.” During this part of their discussion, he provided further details about Plame, noting that she worked for the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence Non Proliferation and Arms Control Center, or WINPAC. During a phone conversation days later, Miller recalled, Libby again raised Wilson and his wife.
During Miller’s cross-examination by defense lawyer William Jeffress, things quickly grew heated. Attempting to buttress Libby’s defense, which hinges on the fallibility of memory, Jeffress questioned her repeatedly about the accuracy of her recollections, pointing out that she hadn’t mentioned her June 23 meeting with Libby during her first appearance before the grand jury. (She appeared a second time, after reviewing her notes, to clarify her testimony.) Jeffress confronted Miller with her comments from a television interview in which she said, “It’s really easy to forget a story, details of a story that you’re not writing.”
“Generally I’m note driven, “Miller explained, “and notes bring to mind a memory—or they don’t.”
“Do you remember my question?” Jeffress responded, perhaps trying to trip her up.
Beyond the testy back-and-forth between Miller and Jeffress, the real drama occurred when the defense asked Miller to identify other sources with whom she’d discussed Wilson, eliciting a swift objection from the prosecution and raising the prospect of another showdown between Miller and the court. (Miller’s agreement with the prosecution stipulates that her testimony will not veer beyond Libby.) After conferring with the judge in private, Jeffress was allowed to put the question to Miller again: “The question is, can you name one of those sources other than Mr. Libby?” Before Miller could answer, Fitzgerald again objected, disputing the relevancy of the question. But, he added, “I’m not here to make the first amendment argument”—in other words, to defend Miller’s right to decline answering the question altogether.
The reason why Libby’s defense wants to pose this question to Miller is clear. “I believe that she will say in response to my question… that she can’t remember a single one of those sources,” Jeffress said. His co-counsel, Ted Wells, referred to this line of inquiry as “classic 101 impeachment” – that is, a strategy to question her credibility.
The dispute between the defense and the prosecution had yet to be settled by the time the court recessed for the day. “I don’t think we have a First Amendment collision at this moment,” Wells warned as the proceedings neared a close, “but we might get there.”