Dispatches From the Scooter Libby Trial

In the Elephant House
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 12 2007 11:08 PM

Dispatches From the Scooter Libby Trial

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Robert Novak. Click image to expand.
Robert Novak

10:14 a.m.: The defense calls Walter Pincus, a Washington Post reporter.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

We're expecting a parade of journalists through the witness box today. Three Posties, a Timesman, a Newsweeker, and Robert Novak. (I've sometimes imagined that Novak is in the employ of Satan, but it turns out he also works for the Chicago Sun-Times.)

Advertisement

Pincus testifies that he talked to Scooter Libby during the summer in question of 2003, and Libby never mentioned Valerie Plame. Who did spill the Plame beans to Pincus? Ari Fleischer. They were talking by phone on July 12 (two days before the publication of the infamous Novak column that outed Plame), when Ari—out of the blue—told Pincus that Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

Oddly, Fleischer didn't mention this when he was on the stand earlier in the trial. Ari said he leaked (after first learning about Plame from Scooter Libby) to two journalists: NBC's David Gregory, and my Slate colleague (and then-Time writer) John Dickerson. (John disputes Ari's recollection.) What's going on? Did Ari totally forget about his talk with Pincus? Is this yet another instance of a faulty recollection, in a trial that may hinge on conflicting memories?

11:18 a.m.: The defense calls Bob Woodward.

The courtroom is packed for Mr. Watergate. Woodward gets to tell us that he's shared in two Pulitzer Prizes and written 14 books. (He claims he writes about government agencies and politicians. What, no love for Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi?)

In summer 2003, Woodward was reporting for the book that would eventually become Plan of Attack. He talked to then-Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage on June 13. They discussed the ongoing kerfuffle over the "sixteen words" in Bush's State of the Union (about Saddam Hussein trying to get uranium from Africa) that came from dubious intelligence and should never have showed up in the speech.

The defense plays Woodward's audio recording of this interview. It turns out to be perhaps the most entertaining exhibit of the trial. While most of the voices we've heard are tamed by the cautious cadences of the law-schooled (not only the trial attorneys, but also Libby and even Tim Russert once worked as lawyers), Armitage is clearly a fun guy to shoot the shizzle with. He features a gruff voice and a whole lotta cussin'. (Which was sadly redacted in the courtroom. You can listen to the censored tape here.)

There was a big fight in 2003—among the White House, the CIA, the State Department, and lord knows who else—over who was to blame for letting in those 16. The CIA eventually took the hit, with Director George Tenet issuing a mea culpa that July. But a month earlier, Armitage had a different take: "The CIA is not going to be hurt by this one," he told Woodward. As for the State Department? "We've got our documents on it. We're clean as a [frackin'] whistle."

"How come it wasn't taken out of the State of the Union, then?" asks Woodward. "Because I think it was overruled by the types down at the White House," answers Armitage.

Moments like this are the fascinating flotsam of this trial. Here we get a peek at how the pre-Iraq war intelligence got so badly mangled. Is there any historical import to the fate of Scooter Libby? Not really. He deserves a fair trial, and justice. But realistically, Scooter's a footnote. It's the flotsam we'll remember.

Of course, while it's more interesting than the case itself, this passage isn't actually the relevant portion of the tape for the defense's purposes. After the 16-words exchange, Armitage, unsolicited, tells Bob Woodward about Valerie Plame. This is the first known leaking of Plame's identity. Armitage had learned about her CIA employment a few days before, from a memo issued by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. (Click here for a transcript of what Armitage said to Woodward.)

11:32 a.m.: Woodward says he talked to Libby two weeks after he spoke to Armitage. And Libby never mentioned Valerie Plame.

The defense's strategy is becoming clear. Check it out, jury: Here are some big-shot reporters who talked to Scooter Libby during the time period in question, and Scooter didn't tell a single one of them about Plame. If he was so focused on leaking that information, why didn't he leak to Pincus or Woodward?

I understand the tactic. But I'm not sure how it will play with the jury. Libby may not have told Bob Woodward, but that doesn't mean he didn't tell Judy Miller.

11:53 a.m.: The defense calls New York Times reporter David Sanger. Guess what? Scooter didn't leak to him, either.

1:37 p.m.: The defense calls Robert Novak. Novak wears his signature three-piece suit, with peaked lapels. He answers questions while peering out from between the tops of his glasses and the awnings of his eyebrows.

Novak recounts his career, which began in 1954 when he covered the Nebraska and Indiana legislatures for the Associated Press. "He's older than dirt," whispers the journalist next to me. "Did you know he survived lung cancer? It's like he can't be killed."

Novak says that Armitage told him on July 8 (two days after Joe Wilson's appearance on Meet the Press) that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and had suggested Wilson go to Niger. Armitage didn't say the wife's last name, but Novak says he found it in Who's Who in America. (Score one for old media. I would have tried Google.)

Novak then confirmed this with Karl Rove. (Rove was "a really good source" for Novak, and they talked "two or three times a week." When asked if Rove's job was to get the president re-elected, Novak answers, "I think he was trying to do a good job for the country, too.") Novak also talked to Libby that week, but says, "I'm absolutely positive that he did not confirm it for me. … He gave me no information about it."

Again the defense is suggesting: If Scooter's such a leaker, why not leak to Novak?

2:22 p.m.: Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald cross-examines Novak. Novak says he first met Wilson in the green room at Meet the Press, when both were appearing on the show. Fitzgerald asks if it's fair to say that they weren't "fast friends."

Most people in the green room are "circumspect," says Novak, by way of reply. But Wilson was "giving his opinion" on the Clinton administration vs. the Bush administration "at some length" and "in a very loud voice." (Guess which Wilson liked better.)

Imagine if Wilson had just reined it in a bit that day. Maybe Novak wouldn't have bothered to pursue a story on him. The Plame column might never have run. And instead of sitting on the hard wooden benches of this courtroom, I could be napping on my couch right now.

2:36 p.m.: Novak reveals another person whom he discussed Plame with before running his column. It was lobbyist Rick Hohlt. Novak told him he had some good scoop. Hohlt is a "lobbyist about town" and "a gossip," in the words of one defense attorney.

Hohlt seems to have little bearing on the case, but as he's the first new name to crop up in the trial for quite a while, the journalists are buzzing. Who's Rick Hohlt? Who's Rick Hohlt?? Last I hear, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff has scurried off at the break to start tracking Hohlt down. (Update: Nancy Pelosi said in 2001, "I don't know Rick Hohlt, but I do think he is acting like a caveman." The plot thickens!)

2:54 p.m.: The defense calls Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler. He is yet another reporter whom Libby did not leak to. The most interesting tidbit in his testimony: When Libby called Kessler on a Saturday afternoon to answer some questions, Kessler was at the zoo with his children. Where in the zoo was he? "I was in the elephant house," says Kessler. Why does he remember this? "I haven't taken many calls in the elephant house."