By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007; 10:52 AM
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer asked prosecutors for immunity in a CIA leak investigation because he feared some might think he had committed a crime in passing along information to reporters about CIA officer Valerie Plame, prosecutors told a judge this morning.
Fleischer is a key witness in the prosecution of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and he agreed to be interviewed by investigators only after getting an immunity agreement. Fleischer had grown worried after reading a newspaper story about the leak investigation, prosecutors said this morning, then hired a lawyer to approach a government team investigating whether Bush administration officials illegally leaked information about Plame to reporters in the summer of 2003.
"Reading the article gave him the feeling that he might be in legal jeopardy, despite the fact that he knew he hadn't said anything to Mr. Novak and hadn't intentionally tried to leak secret information," said government prosecutor Debra Bon Amici. "He didn't think he would be guilty of a crime, but he felt others might view it differently. In his heart of hearts, he didn't believe he had done something wrong."
That both helps and hurts the defense as they seek to discredit the testimony of Fleischer, a crucial government witness. Fleischer is expected to testify later today that Libby told him about Plame's CIA role at an unusual lunch they had together on July 7, 2003, and described the information as "hush-hush." Libby is charged with lying to investigators and falsely telling them that he thought he first learned about Plame's identity from NBC reporter Tim Russert in a July 10 telephone call. That helps Fitzgerald show that Libby's story is implausible, as he said at the opening of the trial: "You can't learn startling information on Thursday that you were giving out on Monday."
Defense attorneys told presiding U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton this morning they want to try to cast Fleischer as a man who had a motive to help prosecutors and lie about Libby -- to save himself from possible prosecution for leaking information to reporters in mid-July 2003. Plame's name and secret CIA role first appeared in a syndicated column by Robert Novak on July 14, 2003 -- eight days after her husband publicly accused the administration of using bad intelligence to justify the war with Iraq earlier that year.
But at the same time, defense lawyers warned Walton that they are worried about the government providing too much information or suggesting too much about Fleischer seeking the immunity deal --- because of what it might imply about their own client.
"The government seeks to use this testimony that if Mr. Fleisher thought he had a criminal problem, Mr. Libby must have thought he had a criminal problem," said defense attorney William H. Jeffress Jr.
Defense attorneys are suspicious of the immunity deal and why Fitzgerald made it without any apparent reluctance. Libby's defense lawyers suggested last week in court that Fitzgerald got a secret summary of Fleischer's testimony -- a deal they want to discuss with jurors when Fleischer takes the stand today.
Walton said this morning he had read in his chambers an affidavit the government provided from Fleischer about his immunity deal and was "satisfied" there was nothing to suggest Fleischer promised Fitzgerald any specific testimony. Fitzgerald had said last week no such promises were made. "We got no specifics," Fitzgerald said then.