By Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 12, 2007; 1:20 PM
Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus testified in court this morning that then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, not I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was the first person to tell him that a prominent critic of the Iraq war was married to undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Testifying as the first defense witness at Libby's perjury trial, Pincus for the first time publicly disclosed the confidential source inside the White House who told him in 2003 that the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV worked at the CIA on matters relating to weapons of mass destruction.
Fleischer testified last month as a prosecution witness that he mentioned Plame only to two reporters -- John Dickerson, then of Time Magazine, and David Gregory of NBC News -- during a trip that President Bush took to Africa.
Pincus, who covers national security and intelligence issues for The Post, told jurors that he was at his newsroom desk on Saturday, July 12, 2003, when he had a telephone conversation with a source. They were discussing a story he was preparing about a trip Wilson took to Niger on behalf of the CIA to explore reports that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from the African nation for its nuclear weapons program.
"The person I was calling suddenly swerved off and said . . . 'Don't you know, in effect, his wife works at the CIA, is an analyst on weapons of mass destruction?' " Pincus testified. He told the court that the source said, "That's why people aren't paying attention" to Wilson's findings that the Iraq reports were unfounded, because he had been sent on the mission by his wife.
Asked by defense attorney William Jeffress Jr. whether his source had been Libby, Pincus replied that he had not. Asked who the source was, Pincus replied: "Ari Fleischer."
Under cross-examination by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Pincus said that Fleischer did not tell him the person from whom he had learned about Plame. Fleischer said during the trial that he had been told by Libby, over a lunch in a White House dining hall.
When Pincus gave a deposition to investigators during a federal probe of the CIA leak, he did not identify his source in the conversation he recounted this morning. He told jurors that he was naming Fleischer now because the former press secretary gave him permission last week.
Libby, 56, has been charged with five felony counts of lying to FBI agents and the grand jury about his role in the disclosure of Plame's identity. He is not charged with the leak itself. The prosecution contends that Libby and others disclosed Plame's name to discredit Wilson, who had accused President Bush of twisting his findings in Niger to justify going to war in Iraq. Prosecutors assert that Libby disclosed Plame's identity to journalists to suggest that Wilson had been sent on the CIA mission because of nepotism, not his expertise.
The defense contends that Libby, who has pleaded not guilty, innocently misremembered his conversations with journalists, because they were insignificant amid his pressing work on national security matters.
Pincus also testified this morning that he did have a conversation with Libby about Wilson a few weeks earlier. Pincus said he had placed "several" telephone calls to Vice President Cheney's office in mid-June 2003 to ask about reports, just emerging at the time, that Wilson had been sent on the African mission at the urging of the vice president.
"Did Mr. Libby say anything about Joseph Wilson's wife?" Jeffress asked.
"No, he did not," Pincus replied.
Pincus's testimony, and that of other journalists who have been summoned as defense witnesses, is useful to Libby. It undercuts the impression Fitzgerald has given the jury that Libby worked aggressively in the late spring and early summer of 2003 to find out about Wilson and his wife -- and then eagerly shared that information with reporters.
Pincus was one of three journalists who testified in rapid succession this morning that Libby had not disclosed to them any information about Plame, even though he spoke with each during the period when the leak took place.
Bob Woodward, a best-selling author and an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, told jurors that he had learned about Plame during an interview on June 13, 2003, with then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage for a book he was researching on the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq.
That date makes Woodward the first journalist known to have been told about Wilson's wife by a high-ranking administration official. Defense attorneys played for the jury an excerpt of the tape recording Woodward made of his interview with Armitage.
Woodward testified that, by the time he went into that interview, he already had learned through his reporting that Wilson was the former ambassador who was sent to Africa by the CIA, although Wilson's name had not yet surfaced publicly. In the recording, Woodward is heard asking about Wilson and how he happened to make the trip. Armitage tells him: "his wife works at the agency" and says that she specializes in weapons of mass destruction.
Woodward asks whether Wilson's wife was "the chief WMD," and Armitage tells him that she is not. Wooodward then asked whether her position was "high enough that she can say, 'Oh, hubby will go?' ''
"Yeah, he knows Africa," Armitage responded.
Woodward also testified that he had an interview with Libby two weeks later, on June 27, 2003. Jeffress asked whether he and Libby discussed Plame. "I've thought about this as best I can and reviewed the notes" from that interview, Woodward said. "There is no doubt Mr. Libby did not say anything about Mr. Wilson's wife."
During his cross-examination, Woodward said that Libby was "very defensive of Cheney" and that, according to his interview notes he "went on and on and on" defending his boss.
Similarly, New York Times reporter David Sanger, then a White House reporter and now the newspaper's chief Washington correspondent, testified that he interviewed Libby on July 2, 2003. Sanger said in court that the interview was for a story he was reporting about a speech then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell gave at the United Nations before the Iraq war began, during which he spoke of the dangers Iraq posed.
Asked by Sanger what Libby had told him about Plame, Sanger replied, "Nothing, I believe."
Under cross-examination, Fitzgerald elicited from Sanger the fact that Cheney's public affairs director at the time, Cathie Martin, was present during the entire interview. Through that questioning, the prosecutor suggested that Libby might have been reluctant to leak Plame's identity to a journalist with a co-worker present.
Also this morning, Libby's attorneys lost an effort to summon NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell to testify as a witness in his defense. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled that Mitchell does not need to testify, despite strenuous arguments by defense attorney Theodore Wells Jr. that the well-known television journalist could help discredit her colleague, the prosecution's key witness, Tim Russert, NBC News' Washington bureau chief.
The jury heard tapes of Libby's grand jury testimony during which he said that, in the second week of July 2003, Russert told him that "all the reporters" knew that Wilson was married to a CIA employee. Libby told grand jurors that, at the time of his conversation with Russert, he had the impression he was learning this for the first time.
Russert has testified that was impossible because he did not know about Plame at the time he spoke to Libby.
Late last week, the prosecution concluded its portion of the trial, which consisted of 11 days of testimony from 10 government officials and journalists. Prosecutors also played eight hours of the audiotapes from Libby's testimony before the federal grand jury that was investigating the Plame leak.