Nothing wrong with Libby's memory, prosecutors assert

In closing arguments, defense contends he had no reason to mislead

February 21, 2007|By Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Miller | Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Miller,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- At I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's perjury trial, his lawyers have argued that pressing matters of state prevented the former White House aide from accurately recalling events. But the question of Libby's guilt or innocence, which is expected to be in the hands of a federal jury today, may turn more on what he says he remembered, rather than on what he says he forgot.

Meeting with the FBI and appearing before a grand jury, Libby repeatedly recalled details of conversations with his former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other administration officials. But when it came to discussions he had about the core issue in this case - his involvement in disclosing the identity of a CIA officer married to an administration war critic - he frequently drew a blank.

In closing arguments yesterday, the government asserted that there was nothing wrong with Libby's memory: His repeated lies, the prosecution argued, were part of a calculated cover-up.

"Ask yourself if that pattern is just a convenient way of avoiding the truth," prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said of versions of meetings that Libby recalled for investigators.

Libby had "a great memory" when it came to remembering self-serving facts, the prosecutor said derisively.

Defense lawyers strenuously opposed that characterization in their closing arguments, attempting to shift the focus from Libby to prosecution witnesses - principally three journalists - whom they portrayed as the ones who were not credible and had memory problems.

Libby's lawyers contended that their client had no motive to mislead anyone and that it made no sense for him to lie - an action they said would jeopardize a long and distinguished career of government service.

"Scooter Libby's innocent. He didn't do anything. He didn't leak anything," said his lead attorney, Theodore V. Wells Jr. "Think about the madness of this prosecution."

The impassioned pleas were the culmination of a month of testimony and argument in a case whose backdrop was the march to war in Iraq and accusations that the administration had twisted prewar intelligence.

The defense has sought to portray Cheney's former chief of staff as a sympathetic figure who, on the orders of the vice president, got caught up in a "meat grinder" of dealing with reporters that left him fearing that White House political operatives were conspiring to "scapegoat" him.

The government has claimed that Libby's actions were driven by another sort of fear - realizing that he might have disclosed classified information about a CIA officer, Valerie Plame, whose husband had publicly criticized the way intelligence was used to justify invading Iraq. As a result, the prosecution argued, Libby chose to make up a story to cover his tracks.

Zeidenberg told the jury that the defense had failed to offer a shred of evidence to support the conspiracy theory. He said the testimony of a string of nine government witnesses proved that Libby was not credible.

"That's not a matter of misremembering or forgetting," Zeidenberg said. "It's lying."

Defense lawyer William Jeffress responded that Libby did not behave like an ordinary criminal and had even produced notes, which proved helpful to the government, that "he would have ditched ... if he was that kind of person."

Jeffress added that it made no sense for Libby to make up his central defense - that he learned about Plame from Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert - because Russert, "the world's most famous television newsman," was bound to be questioned by investigators.

In their closing arguments, both sides also acknowledged the broad political issues underlying the case.

Wells pleaded with jurors not to allow their personal opinions of an unpopular war to affect their verdict.

"Don't in this case sacrifice Scooter Libby for how you may feel about the war in Iraq or how you may feel about the Bush administration," he said. "You give him a fair shake. ... This is a man with a wife and two children."

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald argued that Cheney's office was behind many of the prewar claims that Iraq had stockpiles of banned weapons and that it had aggressively sought to silence critics.

"Let's talk straight," he said. "There is a cloud over the vice president."

Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Miller write for the Los Angeles Times.

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