FBI Agent: Libby Said He Was Surprised to Hear About Plame From Russert
By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 1, 2007; 5:56 PM
An FBI agent who interviewed I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby during the CIA leak investigation testified today that the vice president's then-chief of staff did not reveal that he had repeatedly disclosed the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame to reporters and insisted he was surprised when another journalist later told him about her.
FBI agent Deborah S. Bond told jurors in Libby's perjury trial that he said he did not come across a hand-written note he had taken during a telephone conversation with Vice President Cheney until he was preparing to be interviewed as part of the investigation. The note made clear that, shortly before June 12, 2003, Cheney had told him that Plame worked at the CIA's counterproliferation division and was married to a former ambassador who was an outspoken critic of the Iraq war.
That conversation took place nearly a month before Libby phoned NBC's Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. Libby told the FBI that Russert mentioned to him that "all the reporters" knew that ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's wife worked at the CIA, Bond testified. And she said Libby had told her he was "surprised. It was as if it was the first time he heard it."
Coming on the seventh day of testimony in Libby's trial, Bond's account provided the jury the first details of the deliberate lies the prosecution alleges Cheney's former top aide told investigators in order to mask his true role in spreading information about an undercover CIA officer.
Libby is charged with lying to FBI agents and a grand jury and with obstructing the investigation into the leak of Plame's name to the media. He is not charged with the leak itself. Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald has said Plame's identity was disclosed as part of a White House campaign to discredit her husband, Wilson. Days before the leak, the former ambassador had publicly accused President Bush of trying to justify the Iraq war by twisting intelligence Wilson had gathered in Africa about whether Iraq was trying to buy material there to make nuclear weapons.
Libby has pleaded not guilty, contending that he innocently misremembered conversations he had with reporters about Plame amid the crush of his work on national security issues.
Testifying this afternoon, Bond told jurors that, during her interviews with Libby, he omitted several significant aspects of his interactions with reporters. Bond said he told her about a July 8, 2003 breakfast meeting with then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, but did not mention a meeting with Miller in his office on June 23.
Bond said Libby also failed to tell her that he had learned information about Plame from government officials and discussed it with Miller and, on July 12, with then-Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper.
Bond said Libby told her that he did not recall discussing Wilson's wife with Miller. In Cooper's case, Bond testified, Libby said during the interviews that he had simply told the reporter that reporters were saying Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, although he did not know whether that was true.
Bond said Libby also had been asked during the interviews about telephone conversations with a high-ranking CIA officer, Robert Grenier. Grenier has testified at the trial that he received a phone call from Libby inquiring about Wilson's wife -- and that Libby was so eager for an answer that he pulled Grenier out of a meeting a few hours later with then-CIA director George Tenet to find out what Grenier had learned.
According to Bond, Libby told the FBI he had spoken with Grenier, but "told us he couldn't recall specifically what their conversation was about."
During cross-examination, defense attorney Theodore V. Wells Jr. pressed Bond to acknowledge that Libby had said during his first FBI interview that he was very concerned that his memory was bad and he needed to review his notes to refresh it. Wells also questioned the thoroughness of the agent's notes about Libby's account of his July 12 conversation with New York Times reporter Judy Miller.
Earlier today, the judge presiding over the trial expressed doubt about defense arguments that Libby was made a scapegoat by the White House in 2003 as the furor grew over the leak of a CIA officer's identity to the media.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said that argument was dramatically undercut by a key piece of evidence in the case -- that former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, at Cheney's direction, publicly exonerated Libby in the fall of 2003 of any role in leaking information about Plame.
"That Mr. McClellan did this because the requests were being made by Mr. Libby and the vice president's office, it does undermine that there was this effort by the White House to sacrifice Mr. Libby," Walton told attorneys for both sides after the jury had been excused during a morning session. "To my mind, there hasn't really been any substantial evidence to suggest that [scapegoating] was in play."
Walton's comments came as the prosecution pressed to play videotapes of McClellan's October 2003 briefing for the jury. Asked during a press briefing just days before Libby was interviewed by the FBI whether Libby or two other administration officials had leaked Plame's name, the videotape shows McClellan replying: "They are good individuals. They are important members of our White House team. That is why I spoke with them so I could come back and say to you, they were not involved." Libby had complained to Cheney that McClellan had exonerated senior White House advisor Karl Rove but not Libby days earlier, according to witnesses and documents presented at the trial. Cheney then called the White House to urge McClellan to do the same for Libby, suggesting some phrases that Libby and Cheney worked out together in a private meeting. According to one exhibit, Cheney scribbled on a note: "Has to happen today."
"Why shouldn't this jury be allowed to see tapes showing Mr. McClellan and the White House was supporting his story -- that he had done nothing wrong?" Walton asked the defense. "It's clear the statement exonerating Mr. Libby was made on behalf of the White House."
After lengthy debate between the parties, Walton ruled the jury should hear portions of the tapes, because they are relevant to Libby's state of mind before he was interviewed by FBI agents about his discussions with reporters.
When jurors were brought into the courtroom this afternoon, they watched snippets of three of McClellan's daily press briefings from early October 2003. In the first video clip, days after he had said that White House counselor Karl Rove was not responsible for the CIA leak, President Bush's spokesman declined to clear Libby or anyone else. In the other two -- after Cheney intervened with McClellan at Libby's request, according to prosecution witnesses and evidence presented at the trial -- the press secretary says that Libby had not leaked classified information as well.
Defense attorney Wells initially argued there was no proof that Libby had watched the briefing or read a full transcript of it, and therefore it could not influence his state of mind. Fitzgerald said it was impossible to believe Libby wasn't paying attention to a White House press briefing that mentioned him by name in relation to a criminal investigation.
The prosecution believes it was crucial to share the McClellan briefing with jurors for two reasons. Fitzgerald argued that it shows that a week before Libby was required to meet with FBI agents about his conversations with reporters, he made a special plea to the vice president to say he had nothing to do with the leak. He also contended that the briefing dramatically undercuts the defense argument that Libby feared the White House was making him a scapegoat.
"There is no evidence of an effort to throw him under the bus," Fitzgerald told the judge this morning. "He just couldn't walk back from his story."
Wells said Libby's actions were those of a person who had no fear of legal jeopardy and only wanted to be treated fairly.
"He was concerned about scapegoating," Wells said. "My argument will be only an innocent person would go to the vice president of the United States and say what they're doing is unfair."
Fitzgerald added that the briefing shows how concerned Libby was, that he "upped the stakes" by insisting through the White House press secretary that he was innocent, and then had to stick to his story.
"He put down a marker with the vice president and said 'I'm not involved,' " Fitzgerald said. "If he turns around in four days and says, 'Yes, I heard this information and gave it out to Ari Fleischer, told it to Judy Miller and confirmed it for Matt Cooper,' that's a problem. He's gotta tell a story consistent with what he just told the vice president and the world."
Fleischer was the White House press secretary at the time of the leak and McClellan succeeded him. Miller and Cooper were then reporters for the New York Times and Time magazine respectively. All three have said Libby discussed Plame with them in the days and weeks before Libby contends he first learned of her.