Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ex-Bush Aide, in Testimony, Disputes Libby

Former press secretary Ari Fleischer arriving today at the Prettyman Federal Courthouse
to testify for the prosecution in the I. Lewis Libby case.


Published: January 30, 2007
The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 — Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, recounted to a jury on Monday his experience at an unusual lunch on July 7, 2003, during which he said that I. Lewis Libby Jr. passed on detailed information about the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency operative.

The lunch in the White House mess for senior staff took place three days before the date that Mr. Libby had sworn he first learned about the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson, from reporters.

Mr. Fleischer was the fifth prosecution witness to provide damaging testimony in the form of an account that conflicted with the version Mr. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, told a grand jury and investigators.

Mr. Fleischer’s day on the stand provided a riveting moment because of the detailed description of the conversation, which he said occurred in his last week at the White House and was the only time Mr. Libby had ever asked him to lunch.

Mr. Fleischer said that after casual talk about his new career and the fact that he and Mr. Libby were both fans of the Miami Dolphins, the conversation turned to the controversy then swirling around whether President Bush had used false information in his State of the Union address about Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium in Africa.

The day before the lunch, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador, had written an Op-Ed article in The New York Times that said he had taken a trip to Niger at the behest of Mr. Cheney’s office and had determined there was no truth to the assertion in the State of the Union speech that Saddam Hussein had recently tried to buy uranium ore in Africa.

“Ambassador Wilson was sent by his wife,” Mr. Fleischer testified that Mr. Libby told him, disputing the notion that he had been sent by Mr. Cheney. “His wife works for the C.I.A.”

Mr. Fleischer also said that Mr. Libby used the woman’s maiden name, Valerie Plame, and that she worked at the agency’s bureau that dealt with efforts to curtail the proliferation of weapons.

“He said it was hush-hush, on the Q.T. and that most people didn’t know it,” Mr. Fleischer testified.

Mr. Libby, who is widely known by his nickname, Scooter, looked up occasionally at the witness and took notes.

Ms. Wilson’s name was first disclosed publicly on July 14, 2003, in a column by Robert D. Novak.

That disclosure led to an investigation into the leak as administration critics charged that her identity was disclosed to discredit Mr. Wilson’s charges. Neither Mr. Libby nor anyone else was charged in the end with violating the law in disclosing Ms. Wilson’s identity. Mr. Novak’s original source, Richard L. Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, was not charged, as prosecutors said he did not have the needed intention to violate the law.

But Mr. Libby was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice after he swore he had not discussed Ms. Wilson with reporters. Judith Miller, a former reporter for The New York Times, and Matthew Cooper, a former reporter for Time Magazine, told the grand jury that Mr. Libby had indeed disclosed her identity to them. Mr. Libby’s lawyers have argued that if he was incorrect in recounting his conversations with reporters, it was simply a case of bad memory.

Mr. Fleischer, who as the public face of the White House for nearly three years and thus widely recognizable, was followed to the stand by a prosecution witness regarded as perhaps the most secretive and publicity-averse employee in the White House, David S. Addington.

Mr. Addington was counsel to Mr. Cheney at the time Ms. Wilson’s identity was disclosed and has since been promoted to replace Mr. Libby as the vice president’s chief of staff. He is widely reported to be the theoretician behind Mr. Cheney’s belief in a powerful executive branch, in which the president may exert wide authority unchecked by Congress or the courts.

While Mr. Fleischer, an experienced public spokesman, seemed at ease on the stand, Mr. Addington displayed gruff reticence.

His testimony concerned a meeting he had had with Mr. Libby in a small room in the vice president’s suite between July 6 and July 12. He said Mr. Libby had quizzed him as to whether the C.I.A. would have records showing when someone sent a relative on a mission.

Mr. Addington said his advice was sought because had he worked at the C.I.A. for years as a lawyer. As he provided the far-from-simple answer, he said that Mr. Libby had held out both hands in front, palms down, as if to remind him the information was sensitive. “He said, ‘Keep it down,’ ” Mr. Addington testified.

But it was Mr. Fleischer’s testimony that seemed the most damaging to date. He said he had heard again about Ms. Wilson four days later from the White House communications director, Dan Bartlett, aboard Air Force One as it was heading to Uganda. He said Mr. Bartlett was reading documents and began “venting” that reporters kept repeating Mr. Wilson’s claim that it was Mr. Cheney who had sent Mr. Wilson on his fact-finding trip.

“His wife sent him,” Mr. Fleischer recalled Mr. Bartlett saying. “She works at the C.I.A.”

Mr. Fleischer said he relayed that information to reporters from Time and NBC, a fact that figured in his later demand that he would testify only after being given a grant of immunity from prosecution.

When the investigation began in the fall of 2003, he said he was suddenly afraid he had inadvertently violated the law.

He said that, upon reading that Ms. Wilson’s identity was classified, he thought to himself, “Oh my God, did I somehow play a role in outing a C.I.A. operative?”

Mr. Fleischer freely cooperated with the government, he testified, while refusing to grant interviews to Mr. Libby’s defense lawyers.

Aside from recounting that anxiety, Mr. Fleischer was unruffled on the stand, even under cross-examination by William H. Jeffress Jr., one of Mr. Libby’s lawyers.

Mr. Jeffress noted that Mr. Fleischer had in earlier testimony shown he did not know how to pronounce the maiden name of Ms. Wilson, referring to her as Ms. Plame or Ms. Plah-MAY. He suggested to Mr. Fleischer that that meant “the first time you ever heard it was reading it and not hearing it,” meaning his account of the conversation with Mr. Libby was incorrect. Mr. Fleischer replied, “No, when I heard it, it was not very important.”

Over all, as he had for nearly three years at the White House, Mr. Fleischer “stayed on message.”

Before he took the stand, the jury heard the second day of testimony from Cathie Martin, who had been Mr. Cheney’s communications director. Ms. Martin testified for the prosecution that she told Mr. Libby she had learned about Ms. Wilson and her role at the C.I.A. also before the date Mr. Libby claims to have learned about her.

Mr. Addington is expected to finish his testimony on Tuesday. He will be followed on the witness stand by Ms. Miller, the former Times reporter, who is expected to testify that Mr. Libby told her about Ms. Wilson on three occasions.

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