Lawyer: Officials tried to sacrifice Libby


I. Lewis Scooter Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, left, and his wife Harriet Grant, get out of a vehicle as they arrive at U.S. Federal Court in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 11:43 p.m.

WASHINGTON — White House officials tried to sacrifice vice presidential aide "Scooter" Libby to protect strategist Karl Rove from blame for leaking a CIA operative's identity during a political storm over the Iraq war, Libby's lawyer said Tuesday.

Vice President Dick Cheney personally intervened to get the White House press secretary to publicly clear Libby in the leak, defense attorney Theodore Wells said in his opening statement at Libby's perjury trial.

The new details of behind-the-scenes conflict at top levels of the Bush White House, along with some previously unheard blunt language from Cheney, were the high points of a dramatic day in which the prosecutor and the defense dueled in multimedia statements to the jury.

Wells also disclosed that Libby was preoccupied with many national security issues in July 2003, including possible al-Qaeda threats to assassinate President Bush on a trip to Africa and the possibility al-Qaeda had brought anthrax into the United States. Wells read about these threats from a court-approved summary of classified information to argue that Libby could honestly have forgotten what he told reporters about the CIA operative.

Earlier in the day, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told the jury Libby lied to the FBI and a grand jury about his contacts with reporters concerning CIA officer Valerie Wilson to save his job and avoid political embarrassment. In a rarely seen move, Fitzgerald played four short tape recordings of Libby's statements to the grand jury that he said were lies.

The grand jury was investigating the leak of Valerie Wilson's name and CIA employment, which came shortly after her husband, ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, had become one of the most prominent critics of the war. On July 6, 2003, Wilson alleged in a New York Times article and on "Meet the Press" that Bush had told the nation Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons although the administration had known for some time that story was untrue.

Both sides agreed the Bush White House was consumed with responding to the allegation it had lied to push the nation into war. Wells said Cheney also was concerned that Wilson indicated Cheney was responsible for sending Wilson to Africa to check the uranium story and that his office surely had seen Wilson's report. He said Cheney ordered Libby to rebut that allegation to reporters.

The leak of Wilson's wife's name came in a Robert Novak column July 14, 2003, that said she had arranged for her husband to go on the Africa trip.

When the White House press secretary publicly absolved Rove in the leak but later refused to clear Libby, Libby sought Cheney's help in defending himself, Wells said.

"They're trying to set me up. They want me to be the sacrificial lamb," Wells said, recalling Libby's end of the conversation. "I will not be sacrificed so Karl Rove can be protected."

And why wouldn't they, Wells asked the jury, because Rove was Bush's chief political adviser, "the man most responsible for making sure the Republican Party stayed in office. He had to be protected."

"Libby was an important staffer," Wells thundered. "But Karl Rove was the lifeblood of the Republican Party."

Cheney shared Libby's fears and came to his aid, Wells told the jury. He promised to introduce a blunt note that Cheney took at the meeting with Libby. "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," Cheney's note said, according to Wells. The note's heading suggested Cheney intended to relay this message to Bush, Wells said. Shortly thereafter, the White House publicly absolved Libby in the leak.

Wells explained that Rove was the one Cheney thought was being protected and Libby was the one being sacrificed. He added that the request to stick his head in a meat grinder was Cheney's request that Libby call reporters to rebut Wilson's allegations. And Wells said that by the "incompetence of others," Cheney meant the CIA which he blamed for letting Bush use the uranium story in his 2003 State of the Union. Wells noted that Cheney and Libby and White House aides devoted considerable time after Wilson's New York Times article on July 6 to persuading CIA Director George Tenet to issue a public statement taking the blame for the reference.

Large portions of Wells' two-hour, 15-minute opening were devoted to suggesting that reporters, including Judith Miller of The New York Times, Tim Russert of NBC and Matt Cooper of Time magazine, could be honestly mistaken when they testify later about their conversations with Libby in 2003. Miller and Cooper have said Libby told them about Wilson's wife. Russert says her name never came up, but Libby told investigators he thought Russert said many reporters knew she worked for CIA and he responded he couldn't confirm her CIA employment.

Wells ended with new drama about Libby's national security job. His court-approved list of issues and briefings Libby got in the week after Wilson's column also included negotiations with Turkey over the U.S. capture of Turkish troops in Iraq, possible plans by an Iraq-based terror group to work with al-Qaeda on developing a U.S. presence, possible al-Qaeda plots to assassinate Bush and his top aides, possible al-Qaeda airplane, car bomb and tank trunk attacks on U.S. targets.

Libby's talk with Russert came near the end of this week.

"He is an innocent man and he has been wrongly and unjustly and unfairly accused," Wells concluded.

Fitzgerald displayed a computerized video calendar to illustrate his claim that Libby learned from five people — including Cheney and CIA and State Department officials — that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and then discussed that fact with reporters and others in the White House. He said it was implausible that Libby would have forgotten this by the time he talked with Russert as Libby had claimed to investigators.

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