By Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 3:10 PM
The trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on charges of lying about the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity opened this morning, with the prosecutor and defense attorneys for Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff questioning potential jurors about their views of the Bush administration, the Iraq war and the fallibility of human memory.
As jury selection began, both sides hinted at the strategies they are preparing to pursue in the case. The prosecution alleges that Libby deliberately misled investigators about several conversations he had with journalists in 2003, a few months after the war began. Defense lawyers contend their client was too busy to recall the details of those conversations.
Libby, the first sitting senior White House official to be indicted in recent history,faces five felony counts stemming from a federal investigation into Bush aides' leak of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame in 2003. Her name was published in a syndicated column days after her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly criticized one of the administration's central rationales for the war in Iraq.
Libby, 56, has not been accused of the leak itself. He has been charged with two counts of making false statements to FBI officers, two counts of perjury before a grand jury and one count of obstructing justice. Legal experts have estimated that, if convicted on all charges, Libby could face up to 30 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines.
He stepped down from his job as Cheney's right-hand man and an assistant the president hours after his indictment in October 2005.
The trial, which Walton said could last four to six weeks, will rely on witnesses from the elite tiers of Washington's political and media circles, including the vice president and other current and former White House officials. Journalists scheduled to take the witness stand include NBC's Tim Russert, columnist Robert D. Novak, Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward and Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter who went to jail for nearly three months in an attempt to avoid disclosing her sources.
The trial will lay bare the inner workings of the relationships between journalists and White House aides, showing that it has been cozy at times even in an administration that prides itself on a disciplined, leak-proof culture and has often been publicly dismissive of the media.
Libby and his attorneys arrived at court this morning without commenting to a throng of reporters and television crews at the U.S. District courthouse in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
The trial opened at 10:05 a.m., 25 minutes later than scheduled, as federal Judge Reggie B. Walton addressed a pool of 100 District residents called as potential jurors. Walton read them 38 questions that are the basic screening tools both sides agreed to use in selecting the final group of 12 jurors, plus alternates. Walton told jurors they would be asked, among other things, whether they had "certain sympathies or prejudices" that could interfere with a fair trial.
Speaking to reporters this morning, White House spokesman Tony Snow refused to discuss the case, adding that he was unaware of any discussions about a pardon.
The prosecution will attempt to prove that Libby lied when he told the FBI and grand jury that he first learned from Russert that Plame worked at the CIA, then characterized that information as unsubstantiated rumors when he passed it on to other journalists. The defense will attempt to show that Libby simply forgot the details of those conversations amid his crushing workload on crucial national security matters.
Foreshadowing the defense contention that Libby did not remember his conversation with journalists about Plame, the judge asked the panel members to mark on a jury form whether they believed that "everyone's memory is like a tape recorder and therefore all individuals are able to remember exactly what they said and were told in the past."
The lead defense lawyers, William Jeffress Jr. and Theodore V. Wells Jr., asked potential jurors their opinions of the Bush administration, including whether the president misled the American public about the reasons for going to war in Iraq.
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, asked fewer questions. He asked one woman, a lyric soprano, how she would determine whether a person who said something wrong had lied or made an innocent mistake.
"I would have to put every thing on the table and use my intellect and what I had before me to make that delineation," she replied. "I think it would be an extremely difficult [decision], but at a certain point, you have to make it in good faith."
Earlier today, Libby's lawyers contended in new court documents that "inaccurate and inflammatory" publicity about the case could damage the ability of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff to receive a fair hearing in court.
Libby's lawyers argued in the court papers, filed this morning, that they want to press members of the jury pool on how closely they had followed news coverage and prosecutors' statements, and "probe whether that exposure has affected their ability to impartially judge the facts in this case."
The judge has said that he would like to finish jury selection by the end of tomorrow, or possibly Thursday. Opening arguments are scheduled for next Monday. By mid-afternon, however, the lawyers had questioned nine potential jurors.