Cheney to be called to testify at Libby trial

Appearance will be first by a vice president

December 20, 2006|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Dick Cheney will be called to testify at the perjury and obstruction trial of his former chief of staff, in what would be a historic appearance by a sitting vice president in a criminal prosecution, lawyers said yesterday.

The decision by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's lawyers to call Cheney as a witness in the federal court trial scheduled to begin here in January ends months of speculation about the role senior White House officials would play.

The stage is set for an appearance that could offer new insight into Cheney's relationship with his top aide and for a cross-examination by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald that could lay bare how the Bush administration responded to its critics.

Libby resigned after being indicted in October 2005 on charges that he lied to a grand jury about his conversations with reporters about CIA operative Valerie Plame. White House critics have charged that the leak was part of a campaign to undermine her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had accused the administration in a newspaper column of misleading the public on the case for war in Iraq.

The former aide has denied the charges and has said that any misstatements were inadvertent, reflecting his focus on weightier matters of state, such as terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Libby's lawyers hope that Cheney, as his ex-boss, will be able to buttress that claim by citing their close working relationship.

The lawyers did not say whether they expected Cheney would appear in court or give his testimony through a deposition, although their statements indicated that they believe the vice president would appear in person and voluntarily without a subpoena.

"We don't believe he is going to resist," attorney Bill Jeffress said.

The decision to call Cheney was revealed at a hearing yesterday in federal court as U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton worked through proposed instructions for screening potential jurors in the case. It is expected to go to trial Jan. 16.

Fitzgerald, who had once indicated he might subpoena Cheney, told Walton that he did not intend to call the vice president after all.

"We're calling the vice president," Theodore V. Wells Jr. responded, without elaboration.

That apparently would be a historic event. In 1988, then Vice President George H.W. Bush testified under oath to investigators in the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages probe, but his testimony was never used in court.

By contrast, a number of presidents have participated in trials over the years.

President Bill Clinton gave videotaped testimony in a criminal trial involving two former business partners in the Whitewater land deal.

President Gerald Ford gave a videotaped deposition in the trial of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who was convicted of trying to assassinate him.

And President Jimmy Carter provided videotaped testimony in a grand jury investigation of financier Robert Vesco.

Cheney and Libby got to know each other when Cheney was defense secretary under the first President Bush.

When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Cheney asked Libby to be one of his top aides. And after the Sept. 11 attacks, the two men were among the administration's leading proponents that the U.S. response should include a confrontation with Iraq.

It was in the debate over the decision to go to war that Plame's identity became public. Critics contend it was leaked in retaliation for Wilson's criticism.

Wilson took a trip to Niger for the CIA in 2002 to assess a report that the African nation was selling nuclear material to Iraq. Bush cited the accusation in his 2003 State of the Union address. Wilson wrote in his column that he had found the claim to be baseless.

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak first named Plame as a CIA employee, suggesting Wilson's trip was the result of nepotism.

The trial is expected to feature the testimony of several journalists who spoke with Libby about Plame. Jeffress said yesterday that two reporters were resisting testifying. He did not identify them.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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