Time Comes to a Standstill in a Courtroom Journey
WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 — The most politically charged criminal trial in the capital in nearly two decades crackles to life each morning in a bland sixth-floor courtroom with a stopped clock.
The clock reads 9:25 when I. Lewis Libby Jr. strolls in with a tight smile and a high-priced bodyguard of lawyers and starts perusing documents, scribbling notes and tapping occasionally on a laptop. It is as if Mr. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is just the counsel, not the accused.
It reads 9:25 as witnesses from government’s inner sanctums dredge from memory the declassified details of how, exactly, the country was thrust into war.
A Central Intelligence Agency briefer, Craig Schmall, describes how he rose in the middle of the night to prepare a fresh list of terrorism threats and global troubles for Mr. Libby’s breakfast. A Cheney press aide, Cathie Martin, recounts how she leaked news “exclusives” and arranged luncheons for conservative columnists to counter bad news.
And the clock still reads 9:25 when the fatherly judge, Reggie B. Walton, sends the jury home for the day with the usual reminders about avoiding news coverage of the case, a rule that may prove a particular challenge.
The frozen clock is an apt note in a trial that is a trip back in time, to the days in mid-2003 when the Bush administration first struggled with alarming news on Iraq: insurgent attacks were increasing, the fearsome weapons used to justify the war were nowhere to be found and a drumbeat was growing that the White House had twisted the intelligence.
The trial promises to expose the collision of Washington’s power centers: the presidency, the vice presidency, the spy agencies and the news media. The first three days have been the warm-up act; the anticipated high points of the trial — the testimony of Mr. Cheney, Mr. Libby and several news media stars — will come in the weeks ahead.
Each witness so far has shed light on another kind of government tradecraft. Mr. Schmall of the C.I.A. told of returning from briefing Mr. Libby or Mr. Cheney with their many “taskers” — questions they wanted answered right away — and their gripes. Once Mr. Libby complained that C.I.A. officers were leaking to reporters about alleged pressure on the agency from the vice president’s office.
Marc Grossman, a former under secretary of state, told of the burden of high-level White House meetings, for which he crammed like a graduate student over fat books of data. “I studied them like mad,” he said, “and tried my best to hold onto the information for the time of the meeting.”
Ms. Martin of the Cheney press office explained the nuances of “deep background” comments to reporters and explained her 2003 notes on tactics to counter a tide of bad publicity on Iraq intelligence. Putting Mr. Cheney on “Meet the Press” was one option, she wrote, but that would raise the critics’ profile. Another was to write, or feed to a friendly columnist, an op-ed article.
And then there was the leak option, she explained. Her notes show she considered David E. Sanger of The New York Times, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post or a “newsmag” like Time or Newsweek.
But if you want to get your views out, asked Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the lead prosecutor, why not give the story to all the press? Ms. Martin explained, as if to a dense pupil, the irresistible lure of the “exclusive.”
“If you give it to one reporter, they’re more likely to write the story,” Ms. Martin said. What’s more, she said, “you can be a ‘senior administration official,’ ” hiding behind the anonymous cover that Washington officials so often crave.
Sitting in the courtroom among his lawyers is Mr. Libby, 56, a veteran corporate lawyer known as Scooter, smiling at a passed note or a witness’s quip and rarely showing any distress, even when the testimony seems to put him in jeopardy. His thinning hair has passed almost entirely from blond to gray. This once-powerful man turns out to be slight and short, no taller than his wife, Harriet Grant — one more note-taking lawyer herself. She occasionally leans across a rail to whisper to her husband.
On Thursday, Ms. Grant, in a black suit with a pink patterned scarf, sat beside Barbara Comstock, a former Justice Department spokeswoman who is the media consultant for the defense. It is an undemanding position, given the judge’s orders to both sides not to discuss the case.
At the table on the left, in front of the 12 jurors and 4 alternates, is the prosecution, led by the rumpled Mr. Fitzgerald, who has a prominent bald spot and a knack for projecting righteous indignation even in the most routine exchanges of legal Ping-Pong.
His team of a half-dozen lawyers is imposing, but on Thursday Mr. Fitzgerald grumbled about the forces arrayed against him.
“There are 3 law firms and 11 lawyers on the other side,” he told the judge. “Paper comes flying at us.”
The defense, around an identical table on the right side of the courtroom, is led by the voluble Theodore V. Wells Jr., a star of the white-collar defense bar, who switches up often with William H. Jeffress Jr., a bulldog cross-examiner.
Lengthy legal wrangles — like one Thursday over whether copies of certain documents provided to the defense were legible — can make it seem as if time has stopped for real. But there are also arresting flashes of candor, as when Robert L. Grenier, a C.I.A. veteran, testified about his growing conviction that the White House was shifting responsibility for the war to the agency, a development he found deeply unfair.
“Yes, there was an attempt on the part of the White House to throw blame on the C.I.A.,” said Mr. Grenier, who at the time was the agency’s top Iraq officer and later headed the Counterterrorist Center.
And there are comic moments. In the midst of a discussion over flawed intelligence, Mr. Grenier misplaced his reading glasses on the witness stand. “I appear to have lost my glasses,” he said.
Proceedings were halted. Prosecution and defense united, for once, in a bent-over hunt around desks until the glasses were recovered and the trial could resume.