Isikoff: Libby Jury Kept a Narrow Focus

The jury in the I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby trial had a “tremendous amount of sympathy” for Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff—even wondering if he was being made the “fall guy” for others at the White House, one of the jurors told reporters today.

“It was said a number of times, what are we doing with this guy?’ juror Denis Collins told reporters on the courthouse steps today. “Where is [Karl] Rove? Where are all the others?”

In the end, the jurors stuck to the  issues directly in front of them and delivered a stunning verdict, finding Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff guilty on four of five felony counts involving obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to the FBI.

But Collins’ revealing comments illustrate how difficult it was for the jurors—and perhaps members of the public—to distinguish the relatively narrow questions in the Libby trial from the much larger issues about Iraq war intelligence and White House conduct that have swirled around the CIA leak case from the beginning.

The connection between Libby’s case and the larger political battles over Iraq is one reason why the verdict is likely to plague the White House for some time. The CIA leak furor had erupted in the early summer of 2003, when administration assurances that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction were wearing thin—and former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had been dispatched on a secret CIA mission to Africa before the war, stepped forward to charge that the Bush administration had misled the country.

This sent the White House into attack mode—to try to tear down Wilson’s credibility. And, as testimony in the Libby trial showed, one key player in that campaign was Rove, the president’s chief political  strategist. It was he who confirmed to conservative columnist Robert Novak that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and had played a role in sending  her husband  to Africa—information he volunteered two days later to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper.

What was the purpose of this exercise? Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer shed new light on that question during his trial testimony last month. The point was to demean Wilson and portray him as a “Mama’s boy” who couldn’t get the job himself, Fleischer explained. (Collins said he and other jurors found Fleischer a credible witness.)

And Dick Cheney himself helped launch the strategy. In June, 2003 Cheney first told Libby that Wilson’s wife worked at the counter-proliferation division of the CIA, according to Libby’s own notes. It was Cheney who first put the nepotism charge in play, scribbling on a clipping of a newspaper column that Wilson had written, asking whether the former ambassador had been sent on a “junket” by his wife.

Indeed, virtually all the major revelations that surfaced in the course of the Libby trial revolved around Cheney’s own conduct. Cheney personally dictated “talking points” to reporters about Wilson, his former press aide testified. Cheney closely monitored press coverage of the Wilson controversy. And most importantly, Cheney personally directed Libby to meet with one reporter, Judy Miller of The New York Times, to leak selective portions of a secret National Intelligence Estimate to rebut Wilson’s criticism.

The meeting proved consequential. It was during the resulting two-hour breakfast meeting with Miller that Libby also passed along the information he had learned from Cheney—that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.

But Cheney, like Rove, never got called as a witness in the trial—even though the defense at first indicated they planned to bring him to the stand. The questions Collins raised after the verdict suggest that the jurors found this curious. Why weren’t Rove and Cheney being called to fill in the picture—and explain what they had done?

But jurors ultimately had to put aside those larger issues and focus on small ones: Had Libby lied to the FBI and a federal grand jury when he claimed he had forgotten all about Wilson’s wife until, he insisted, NBC host Tim Russert told him about her in a telephone conversation?

A parade of witnesses—including two of Libby’s former colleagues in the vice president’s office—were key to their thinking, Collins said today. One of them was   Cathie Martin, Cheney’s former communications director, who told how she had discussed Wilson’s wife with Libby well before the Russert conversation. The jurors had no reason to disbelieve her, especially since, Collins said, she and Libby seemed to have a good relationship. Marc Grossman, the former undersecretary of state, and Cheney’s own CIA debriefer both testified that they too had discussed Wilson’s wife with Libby well before the conversation with Russert.

“It was very hard to make a case that he wouldn’t have known that [about Wilson’s wife], that he would have forgotten,” Collins said.

Another Cheney aide, John Hannah—ironically, a defense witness—also helped convict Libby, according to Collins. Hannah, a national security advisor to the vice president, had been put on the stand by the defense to testify that Libby was dealing with pressing issues of national security and international terrorism during the time the questions about Valerie Wilson first arose. That point was central to the defense argument that Libby could not have been expected to remember a relatively trivial detail like the fact that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.

Hannah testified that Libby was known to have a bad memory. But juror Collins, a former Washington Post reporter, pointed out that Hannah had also testified that Libby had an “incredible grasp of details.” The jury concluded in the end that the details about Joe Wilson and his wife—and the need to tear down a critic of the Iraq war—were just too important for the vice president’s chief of staff to have forgotten.