A Damning Witness

Ari Fleischer may turn out to be a stronger—and more credible—witness than he was a White House press secretary.

During several hours on the witness stand in the I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby Jr. perjury and obstruction trial Monday, President Bush’s former chief spokesman was cool, unruffled, chatty and at times combative—especially when he underwent hostile cross-examination from one of Libby’s lawyers. But he stuck to his story and, in the process, delivered what may have been the most damaging testimony yet against Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

Fleischer described with damning new details a lunch he had with Libby in the White House mess on July 7, 2003, just as the controversy over the president’s State of the Union claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Africa was spreading into a major Washington firestorm.

During that lunch, Fleischer said, Libby was anxious to rebut criticism by former ambassador Joseph Wilson. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Wilson had written that he had been dispatched on a CIA mission to Niger to check out the uranium claim in 2002 at the instigation of Cheney’s office and reported back there was nothing to the story.

As Fleischer related the story to the jury, Libby told him: “The vice president did not send Mr. Wilson. Ambassador Wilson was sent by his wife. She works for the CIA.” Libby then told him which part of the CIA employed her. “He said his wife works at the Counter-Proliferation Division. I think he told me her name,” Fleischer testified. Libby added: “This is hush-hush, this is on the Q.T. Not very many people know about this.”

Fleischer then described his reaction. “That was news to me. That was the first time I ever heard it. I thought it was kind of odd. ” Fleischer took from Libby’s disclosure that the vice president’s top aide had passed along a “nugget” that undermined the credibility of both Wilson—by then a nettlesome public critic of the White House—and the CIA. “My thought was that what I was hearing was there was nepotism at the CIA,” he said.

The Fleischer testimony, if believed by the jury, significantly bolsters prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s case. Libby is charged with lying in a federal grand jury probe triggered by the disclosure in the media the following week that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA—information that some White House officials, including Fleischer, had used to try to discredit Wilson. Libby, according to the indictment against him, falsely told the FBI and a federal grand jury not only that he had nothing to do with disclosing Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity to the press. He also testified that NBC “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert told him about Wilson’s wife working at the CIA in a conversation three days after his lunch with Fleischer and that he was surprised and “taken aback” to learn the information.

One line of Libby’s defense was that the information about Wilson’s wife was so insignificant to him that it is perfectly understandable that he might honestly be confused about where and when he learned it. Indeed, Libby’s lawyers have had some success thus far in demonstrating that other government witnesses—most notably former CIA official Bob Grenier—were also confused about when they had conversations about Wilson’s wife.

But one particular detail of Fleischer’s testimony may be significant. Libby had passed along that Wilson’s wife worked in the Counter-Proliferation Division of the CIA, Fleischer said. That division is located in the Directorate of Operations, the agency’s clandestine wing—not its analytic branch. That’s important, because it means the information about Wilson’s wife might have been viewed as especially sensitive—one possible reason that explains why Libby described it as “hush-hush,” even though Fleischer said he had no idea that her status at the agency was classified.

Fleischer later testified that a few days later, he himself was aboard Air Force One on a trip to Africa when presidential counselor Dan Bartlett was “venting” while reading a document about Wilson’s mission. Bartlett said he couldn’t believe the press was saying the vice president had sent Wilson to Africa. “His wife sent him. She works at the CIA,” Bartlett said, according to Fleischer’s account. When Fleischer heard this, he said, he remembered his earlier conversation with Libby. “It was information I clearly knew and that I had heard before,” Fleischer said.

Later that day, Fleischer decided to pass the information along to two reporters on the Africa trip: NBC correspondent David Gregory and then-Time magazine correspondent John Dickerson. (Gregory so far has declined to comment. But Dickerson, sitting in the courtroom and now covering the trial for the online magazine Slate, disputed this aspect of Fleischer’s account. Dickerson says Fleischer suggested that he look into who sent Wilson to Africa, but maintains “he didn’t tell me about the wife.”)

William Jeffress, one of Libby’s lawyers, was unable to shake Fleischer during a lengthy and at times combative cross-examination. Fleischer, looking directly at the jury and appearing at ease, chatted about White House-press relations and how reporters were constantly demanding that he back up what he was saying. But he consistently refused to budge from his story or acknowledge that he might have been mistaken about what Libby told him. Jeffress hammered away at Fleischer’s immunity agreement with prosecutors, getting the witness to admit that he originally refused, on the advice of his lawyer, to answer any questions in prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s probe and only finally did so after receiving a grant of immunity.

Asked why he thought he needed immunity, Fleischer testified that after learning that a criminal investigation had been launched into the disclosure of Plame’s employment, “I was absolutely horrified. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, did I play a role in somehow outing a CIA officer?’”

While Fleischer said he did not believe he had done anything wrong, he was concerned that “others” might view it differently and he could end up facing criminal charges. But when Jeffress tried to get him to testify about conversations he had with his lawyers, Fleischer declined, reminding Libby’s lawyer of the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege.