Why Libby's Defense Failed

  • Share
  • Read Later
Susan Walsh / AP

Former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and his wife Harriet Grant leave federal court in Washington, Tuesday, March 6, 2007, after the jury reached its verdict in his perjury trial.

I. Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was found guilty today on four counts of obstructing justice and lying to the FBI and a grand jury during an investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity. The 11-person jury acquitted Libby on a fifth count of making a false statement to FBI agents.

The offenses carry possible sentences of more than 20 years in prison, but because he is a first-time offender, Libby will probably receive substantially less under federal sentencing guidelines. His lawyer, Theodore Wells, said he would move for a new trial and, if the motion is denied, would appeal.

"We believe, as we said at the time of his indictment, that he is totally innocent and that he did not do anything wrong," Wells said shortly after the verdict. "And we intend to keep fighting to establish his innocence."

The prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, said that it was "actually sad that we had a situation that a high-level official obstructed justice and lied under oath. We wish that it had not happened, but it did. We are gratified by the jury's verdict."

One of the jurors, Denis Collins, said there was "a tremendous amount of sympathy for Mr. Libby on the jury" and that it seemed as if Libby "was the fall guy" for Cheney and others in the White House. It took the jury about 10 days to reach a verdict.

The felony charges at the heart of the high-profile case were built around evidence that Libby lied when he denied leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters. Plame is married to Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who wrote an op-ed piece in 2003 debunking the WMD justifications for the Iraq war. Libby supposedly leaked Plame's name as part of a White House campaign to discredit Wilson.

Though outing a CIA agent can be illegal, no one was charged with doing that to Plame. Instead, Fitzgerald went after Libby for lying. Though seemingly a side issue, Fitzgerald told reporters it was like "throwing sand in the umpire's face," a serious transgression that stops investigators from doing their jobs. Today, Fitzgerald came back to that theme, stressing that to "have a high-level official do that under oath in a national security investigation is something that's not acceptable."

The trial opened with a bang on January 23, as the elegant Theodore Wells declared that White House officials were making his client a scapegoat to protect presidential adviser Karl Rove. Washington salivated over the suggestion of a rift in the Bush Administration, but it came to naught. The defense never offered any testimony to back up the claim, and by the end of the trial, it was largely forgotten.

Instead, over the next 10 days, jurors heard the methodical drone of the prosecution's effort to portray Libby as a liar. No fewer than four officials testified that they had told Libby who Plame was, and two reporters testified that Libby later confirmed her identity in one way or another. Fitzgerald followed those witnesses with a numbing eight hours of Libby, on tape, denying or not recalling any of those conversations.

But that was all mere prelude to the case's pivotal witness, NBC's Tim Russert. Despite Libby's claim that he first learned about Valerie Plame from Russert, the host of NBC's Meet the Press told jurors that he never spoke with Libby about her. During cross-examination, Wells attacked the journalist's memory, but other than a few nicks and cuts, he was unable to inflict much damage. Collins confirmed today the importance of Russert's testimony. "The primary thing that convinced us on most of the counts was the conversation, the alleged conversation, with Russert," the juror said, explaining that Libby was told about Plame's identity "at least nine times" before he spoke with Russert.

Wells was playing catch-up by the time he opened the case for the defense, teasing the court with the possibility that Libby and even Vice President Dick Cheney would testify. Wells first trotted out six prominent reporters to say they had never discussed Plame with Libby during the summer of 2003. It was an odd start, an indirect approach, implying that if Libby hadn't talked about the CIA operative with luminaries like The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, he probably hadn't mentioned her to any reporter.

But the defense's main strategy was to show that Libby, as Cheney's chief of staff, was far too preoccupied with affairs of state, like the Iraq war and the nuclear capabilities of Iran and North Korea, to remember being told about Plame. "The wheels are falling off the Bush Administration," Wells told jurors in describing the times. "Thousands of young kids are on the ground [in Iraq]. It's a crazy period."

Libby and then Cheney were expected to testify about just how crazy things were, but without notice, Wells informed the court that they would not take the stand. Instead, he offered John Hannah, Libby's former deputy, who described how terrible his boss's memory was. Then, after only three days, the defense rested its case.

Declining to put Libby or Cheney on the stand was a controversial move — and one that the defense would pay for. Often in criminal cases, and especially in those involving perjury, jurors like to hear the defendant explain his actions personally. But Libby would no doubt have been cross-examined harshly, and Cheney might have been embarrassed to explain publicly his role in undermining Wilson's criticisms of the war.

In any event, the judge said he felt misled, at least about Libby, and he told Libby's lawyers that they were "playing games with the process." To punish them, he ruled that they could not say in closing arguments that the pressure of national security issues prevented Libby from remembering any conversations about Plame. All the lawyers could say was that Libby "had a lot on his plate."

Although the criminal trial has ended, the legal wrangling is far from over. In a lawsuit filed July 13, Plame and Wilson accused Libby, Cheney and presidential adviser Karl Rove of violating their rights to free speech, privacy and equal protection by conspiring to reveal Plame's identity. The suit has essentially been on hold while the criminal trial played out, and it may go away if the three defendants win their argument that, as government officials, they are immune from getting sued. Cheney, as a sitting vice president, has the best chance of getting full immunity, but the other two, as behind-the-scenes guys, may have a trickier case to make. If the lawsuit goes forward, the process of legal discovery may allow each side to demand piles of information from the other. That prospect should keep Plame and Wilson in the public eye for quite a while longer.