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The Best Chance at the Truth

The Best Chance at the Truth

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 1:24 PM


It's a compelling, but still largely unexplored, narrative.

It goes something like this: As President Bush's false case for war in Iraq began to unravel, his top aides took extreme measures to discredit critics who accused the administration of intentional deceit. One of their mechanisms involved using compliant reporters to spread sometimes inaccurate information, without leaving any fingerprints. As a result, they successfully kept charges of deception from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election, allowing Bush to win a second term. And since then, they have continued to avoid any meaningful congressional oversight, while at the same time keeping most of the press off the trail.

Barring a robust and far-reaching inquiry on Capitol Hill, the trial of Scooter Libby on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, which started this morning in Washington, offers the public its best chance to determine whether that narrative is accurate.

The Coverage

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Dozens of potential jurors were asked their opinions of the Bush administration Tuesday as jury selection began in the perjury and obstruction trial against former White House aide 'Scooter' Libby. . . .

"'Do any of you have feelings or opinions about the Bush administration or any of its policies or actions, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to give a former member of the Bush administration a fair trial?' U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton asked a panel of about 60 potential jurors.

"Walton did not ask jurors their opinions on the Iraq war or whether they had family members of friends who served in the military -- questions Libby's attorneys had hoped would be asked. . . .

"'Do any of you have any feelings or opinions about Vice President Cheney, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to be fair in this case or that might affect your ability to fairly judge Vice President Cheney's believability?' Walton asked. . . .

"The answers will be crucial for Libby, who is hoping that a sympathetic jury can be selected from a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 9-to-1."

Amy Goldstein writes for "The trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on charges of lying about the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity opened this morning, with defense attorneys contending 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."

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "When Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff goes on trial Tuesday on charges of lying about the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity, members of Washington's government and media elite will be answering some embarrassing questions as well.

"I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's case will put on display the secret strategizing of an administration that cherry-picked information to justify war in Iraq and reporters who traded freely in gossip and protected their own interests as they worked on one of the big Washington stories of 2003. . . .

"Randall D. Eliason, a former chief of public corruption cases in the U.S. Attorney's Office, said the evidence appears to make it difficult for Libby to claim forgetfulness. 'You have the vice president cutting out a section of the newspaper, circling it and saying, 'Let's find out about this.' You don't rise to the level of being the vice president's chief of staff by letting that kind of thing slip your mind.'"

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "His defense is a novel one: that he was so preoccupied with life-or-death affairs of state that it affected his ability to accurately recall events for federal investigators.

"Prosecutors have a simpler explanation: He lied. . . .

"At a time when most high-profile Washington criminal defendants cop pleas to avoid the glare of the courtroom, the case should provide a rare display of political theater, a throwback to the days of Watergate and the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, which played out in the same federal courthouse where Libby's fate will be decided.

"The politically charged case against Libby may be the closest thing that critics of the Bush administration ever get to a public trial dealing with the justifications for the Iraq war."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The trial, expected to last at least a month, may serve as a stage for such intriguing issues as how the administration dealt with critics before going to war in Iraq, the changed relationship between journalists and senior government officials, and the always vexing question about the wisdom of using an independent prosecutor to investigate crimes in an administration. . . .

"Looming over the proceedings is speculation that Mr. Libby would be a plausible if not likely recipient of a presidential pardon if convicted."

The BBC reports: "Washington insiders are salivating at the thought of prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald - a famously tough cross-examiner - harrying Mr Cheney, whose debating skills are legendary."

Murray Waas writes in the National Journal: "In attempting to determine Libby's motives for allegedly lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury about his leaking of Plame's CIA identity to journalists, federal investigators theorized from the very earliest stages of the case that Libby may have been trying to hide Cheney's own role in encouraging Libby to discredit Wilson, according to attorneys involved in the case."

Jennifer Hoar writes for that Libby "won't lack powerful friends or financial resources when he goes on trial on Tuesday. A private fund set up to pay the legal bills of the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney has collected more than $3 million since Libby's indictment 14 months ago."

Cheney on Libby

In an interview on Fox News with Chris Wallace on Sunday, Cheney spoke highly of Libby, and wouldn't say whether he would appear in person or by video. (Wallace's suggestion of a videotaped deposition, in which Cheney could not be cross-examined, seems highly unlikely.)

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I believe he's one of the more honest men I know. He's a good man. And I obviously appreciate very much his service on my staff over the years and have very high regard for him and his family.

"Q Libby's lawyers say they're going to call you as a witness, and we've had presidential scholars covering it. It appears it may be the first time ever that a sitting Vice President has testified in a criminal trial. Will you participate in a videotaped deposition or will you go into court and raise your right hand?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Chris, I'm not going to get into the trial. That's a matter that's before us. I have indicated from the very beginning my wholehearted cooperation with the investigation and with whatever legal proceedings emerge out of that, and this will all unfold here in the very near future."

Will the Bloggers Save the Day?

Bill Nichols writes for USA Today in what I sure hope doesn't turn into a self-fulfilling prohecy: "The perjury and obstruction trial of former White House aide Lewis 'Scooter' Libby opens Tuesday amid diminished expectations for bombshells from a case that once dominated Washington headlines.

"Save for the expected testimony of Vice President Cheney -- a first for a sitting vice president in a criminal case, according to presidential historians -- the case against Cheney's former chief of staff has lost some of its appeal. 'It's going to disappear into the back pages of the newspaper, with the front pages devoted to Bush's new buildup in Iraq,' says Paul Light, a presidential historian at New York University."

Several bloggers will be covering the trial, promising quick reports, reaction and original documents. Here's blogger Jeralyn Merritt's look at who besides herself is attending. (And, for good measure, Merritt is Live Online on today at 2 p.m. ET.)

Blogger coverage threatens to be partial and not always up to professional journalist standards. But if the traditional media ends up filing its stories listlessly, lazily and late, then professional journalists will have lost a major battle to the citizen journalists.

So far, signs are good that bloggers will, at the very least, be adding to the public's knowledge of and comprehension of the case. Already this morning, for instance, blogger emptywheel at The Next Hurrah is out with a copy of the potential witness list.

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