`Busy man' defense gains some ground

Libby's lawyers show witnesses' own memory lapses

January 25, 2007|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's defense of perjury charges, which rests in part on what he has described as innocent memory lapses, appeared to gain some ground yesterday when his lawyers showed that two government witnesses in the case had memory issues of their own.

Former CIA official Robert Grenier, questioned by Libby's lawyers, acknowledged that he initially told a federal grand jury in January 2004 that he did not believe he had shared information about the status of CIA operative Valerie Plame when he spoke with Libby weeks before she was identified in a newspaper column. But Grenier said he testified 18 months later in another grand jury appearance that he had concluded that he had given Libby that information after all.

Grenier was called by the government to help prove the central charge against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff: that contrary to what he told investigators, Libby obtained information about Plame, the wife of a Bush administration critic, before her identity surfaced July 14, 2003, in a syndicated column by Robert Novak.

Libby told a grand jury that he learned about Plame from journalists and passed along gossip they offered him. The government claims that he made up the story apparently in an effort to protect his boss.

Marc Grossman, a former State Department undersecretary for political affairs, also testified yesterday that he had discussed Plame with Libby but conceded there were discrepancies in the accounts of the discussion that he had initially given FBI agents. Grossman said that he could not reconcile the differences.

Grenier said that he changed his testimony after reflecting on what he described as "feelings" of guilt after having talked with Libby and shared potentially classified information with him. He also said that it was becoming apparent from newspaper reports that how and when Libby learned about Plame was becoming of paramount interest to investigators.

The disclosures, on the first full day of testimony in Libby's trial on perjury and obstruction charges, appeared to buttress a central claim of the defense.

Libby, through his lawyers, has conceded that he might have misspoken to investigators but only because he was preoccupied with grave matters of national security, which clouded his ability to recall events. His lawyers were able to show yesterday that such memory problems might be an occupational hazard for high government officials.

"Do you find that your memory gets better the further away from an event you are?" William Jeffress, one of Libby's lawyers, asked Grenier. "Your memory improves with time?"

Grenier, who was the agency`s point man on Iraq at the time of the conversation, said that he could not account for any single event that changed his thinking. "I developed a growing conviction that I must've said it," he testified. "It`s like, `Wake up and smell the coffee. You must've told him."'

The government tried to rebut what some lawyers have called Libby's "busy man" defense.

Prosecutors introduced notes taken by Libby's CIA briefer during a meeting in June 2004. The notes revealed that Libby had taken time out to visit with actor Tom Cruise and his then-girlfriend Penelope Cruz, who had requested time with Cheney's aide to complain about German government criticism of Scientology, of which Cruise is a well-known follower.

"Mr. Libby told me about it during the briefing," Craig Schmall, the CIA briefer, said. "He was a little excited about it. I was a little excited about it."

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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