WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 — The former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer today contradicted the account of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, on when Mr. Libby first learned the identity of a C.I.A. agent.
Mr. Fleischer, testifying in Mr. Libby’s trial under a grant of immunity, said Mr. Libby told him over lunch on July 7, 2003, that the wife of a critic of President Bush’s Iraq policy worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. That is three days before he told a grand jury that he first learned her name.
“This is hush-hush,” Mr. Fleischer recalled Mr. Libby as saying in effect. “This is on the Q.T. Not many people know about this.”
Mr. Fleischer said he had lunch with Mr. Libby in the White House mess that Monday, July 7, and that they had a general conversation (“We talked a little football”) before Mr. Libby brought up the subject of Valerie Wilson, a covert C.I.A. agent whose husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat, had criticized the president’s Iraq policy in an opinion essay in The New York Times.
The former Bush spokesman testified that Mr. Libby said, “She works at the C.I.A., she works in the counter-proliferation division.”
“I thought it was kind of odd,” Mr. Fleischer said, describing his reaction to what he said was Mr. Libby’s disclosure. He said the revelation about Mr. Wilson’s wife left him with the impression that there was “nepotism at the C.I.A.”
Unless defense lawyers can undermine Mr. Fleischer’s credibility, the testimony about the July 7 lunch could prove very damaging to Mr. Libby, who told a grand jury that he believed he first learned about Ms. Wilson in a conversation with Tim Russert of NBC on Thursday, July 10, 2003, and that he had been taken aback by Mr. Russert’s information.
Mr. Libby is on trial in Federal District Court on five felony counts charging that he lied to investigators and to the grand jury and tried to obstruct an investigation into who leaked the name of Ms. Wilson. She was first unmasked in a newspaper column by Robert Novak on July 14, 2003, days after her husband wrote in The New York Times that he believed the Bush administration had distorted intelligence to build a case for invading Iraq.
Ms. Wilson’s husband had gone to Africa to investigate reports that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger for his nuclear weapons program.
No one has ever been charged for leaking the name of Ms. Wilson and disclosing her C.I.A. status. The chief prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has accused Mr. Libby of making up his accounts of learning about Ms. Wilson from reporters.
The team of defense lawyers, headed by Theodore V. Wells Jr., is portraying their client as a 16-hour-a-day public official shouldering the responsibilities of national security, and therefore far too busy to recall details about who told him what, and what he said to whom, months after the fact. The defense has also asserted that Mr. Libby is being made a scapegoat to protect Karl Rove, who has acknowledged having been a source for Mr. Novak.
Mr. Fleischer said he was not a close friend of Mr. Libby, but that he liked him. The July 7 occasion, shortly after Mr. Fleischer had made plans to leave the White House, was the first time he had dined with Mr. Libby, Mr. Fleischer said.
The former White House spokesman appeared before the grand jury three times, in January, February and September, 2004. He took the stand around noon today and was not asked in detail in the early going about the circumstances under which he acquired immunity.
The prosecutor, Peter Zeidenberg, anticipating a defense attempt to undermine Mr. Fleischer’s credibility because of the immunity deal, elicited from Mr. Fleischer a statement that “the immunity provides no protection for perjury.”
Mr. Fleischer recalled the turmoil that engulfed the White House after it was forced to back off President Bush’s assertion, in his January 2003 State of the Union address, that the British government had found clear evidence that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium in Africa.
Mr. Fleischer said he sensed that “the ground was shifting.”
“The worst place to stand when you are the press secretary is where the ground is shifting,” said Mr. Fleischer, who recalled that at one news briefing, “I basically punted.”
Judge Reggie B. Walton said at the start of today’s session that one juror had been removed. He did not state why. “Everybody else has to stay healthy,” Judge Walton said. When the trial began, there were four alternates as well as the 12 jurors.