Libby trial jury hears tapes of his grand jury testimony

Denial that he discussed CIA official conflicts with sworn statements

February 06, 2007|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a federal grand jury three years ago that he did not believe he had discussed the wife of an administration critic with officials from the CIA and the State Department, contradicting sworn testimony by the officials at Libby's perjury trial here.

The revelation came yesterday as prosecutors began playing audio tapes of Libby's eight hours of testimony before a federal grand jury that was investigating how the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame became public.

The transcript of Libby's two grand jury appearances in March 2004 also shows that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald explored early on whether President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were involved in the circumstances leading to the disclosure of Plame's identity as a CIA employee.

Libby told the grand jury that Cheney was the first to tell him, in June 2003, that the wife of former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV worked in the arms-proliferation division of the CIA. But the vice president's former chief of staff denied that his boss had told him to pass on information about Wilson's wife to anyone else.

Fitzgerald then asked Libby whether he or Cheney had ever discussed with Bush the criticism from Wilson that was beginning to surface in media reports. He said he had not.

Plame's identity was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert Novak on June 14, 2003, eight days after an opinion article by Wilson in The New York Times charged that the Bush administration had twisted intelligence reports about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's interest in obtaining weapons-grade uranium from the African nation of Niger.

At the CIA's request, Wilson had investigated those claims the previous year. Although he found them to be without merit, a 16-word section of Bush's 2003 State of the Union address asserted that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Africa.

In May 2003, a New York Times op-ed columnist disputed the accuracy of that section. He wrote that "the vice president's office had asked for an investigation of the uranium deal" more than a year earlier, so an unnamed ambassador had traveled to Africa and reported that the allegations were baseless.

Under federal law, it can be a crime to intentionally disclose the status of a covert CIA employee, and Fitzgerald was asked by the Justice Department to determine whether that law had been broken. No one has been charged with that crime. The only charges filed have been against Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice.

The audio tape of the grand jury proceedings is the first time that the jury in Libby's trial has heard from the defendant in any form, and his words directly contradict the testimony last month of former CIA official Robert Grenier and former State Department Undersecretary Marc Grossman. Both said they had told Libby that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

On the tape, Libby told the grand jury he could not recall discussing Wilson's wife with either official.

Fitzgerald also quizzed Libby about a series of notes he took while talking on the phone with Cheney on or about June 12, 2003.

Libby said that Cheney was giving him talking points on rebutting Wilson's claims, including a suggestion that the vice president had authorized the trip and should have known what was learned.

Cheney did mention that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, Libby told the grand jury, adding that he did not attach much significance to the disclosure.

Libby said he did not believe that Cheney wanted him to leak word about Wilson's wife to the press.

Fitzgerald has said that Libby lied to the grand jury and to federal investigators to cover up his concern that he had leaked classified information about Plame to reporters. The prosecution contends that Plame's identity was leaked in an effort to discredit Wilson by raising suggestions that he was sent to Africa because his wife worked at the CIA.

Libby has said that he first learned about Plame from Tim Russert, the moderator of Meet the Press and the Washington bureau chief of NBC News. Russert, who is expected to testify tomorrow, has denied that he gave Libby that information. Libby has said that at the time he spoke with Russert he had forgotten that Cheney had earlier told him about Plame.

Fitzgerald said he would play the rest of the grand jury tapes today and complete his case Wednesday, at which time Libby's lawyers will begin their defense.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled yesterday morning that the tapes, along with the transcripts, would be made available to the public after Fitzgerald introduces them into evidence.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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