By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007; 1:22 PM
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told a jury today that Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff was the first person to disclose the identity of an undercover CIA officer to him in July 2003. Valerie Plame's identity was revealed in the press days later.
Taking the stand just before noon in the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Fleischer said that in an unusual lunch in the White House mess, Libby told him that the wife of a prominent war critic worked in the CIA's counterproliferation division. Fleischer, a crucial prosecution witness, said Libby told him at the July 7 lunch that former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was sent to Niger not by the vice president, but by Wilson's own wife at the CIA.
Wilson later accused the administration of twisting information he gathered, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq, and some have charged that Plame's name was leaked to discredit him.
Fleischer said he believed that Libby told him Plame's name, but could not be sure.
"He added that this was something hush-hush or on the QT, that not many people knew this information," Fleisher said. "My impression was Mr. Libby was telling me this was kind of newsy."
Added Fleischer: "My thought was that what I was hearing was about nepotism."
Libby is charged with lying to FBI agents and a grand jury and obstructing justice in the investigation of who leaked Plame's name to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak. He told investigators that he learned about Plame's identity from NBC reporter Tim Russert in a July 10 telephone call. He has pleaded not guilty, contending that when he testified, he did not remember some conversations he had with reporters about Plame. He is not charged with the leak itself.
Fleischer said he never viewed the information he received about Plame as classified or secret, because the protocol in the White House was that press aides would be warned explicitly when information was classified and could not be used in discussions with reporters.
Fleischer also made clear how uncomfortable he was when questioned earlier that day at a press briefing about Wilson's claims that the administration was twisting intelligence. Earlier in the spring, he had insisted that President Bush stood behind 16 words in his 2003 State of Union address about Iraq's efforts to buy uranium in Niger.
But higher level officials he didn't name began suggesting it might be a problem to defend that statement.
"I had been told to be careful not to stand by the 16 words, that the ground might be shifting on that," Fleischer said. "You can't say yes. You can't say no. At that briefing, I basically punted. I said yes and no."
Earlier in the day, prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton that Fleischer 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.
Defense attorneys told 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.