Dispatches From the Scooter Libby Trial

It's a Curiosity Sort of Thing
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Feb. 5 2007 10:26 PM

Dispatches From the Scooter Libby Trial

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9:45 a.m.: Instead of battling the prosecution, Scooter Libby's lawyers are battling the media today. All of us. Attorney Nathan Siegel (appearing on behalf of multitudinous press outlets) argues that the audio tapes of Libby's grand jury testimony ought to be released for public consumption. Libby's lawyers don't like this at all.

"Hey, it's great stuff," acknowledges defense attorney William Jeffress of the audio. As such, he argues, it is likely to be parceled into sound bites all over the airwaves. Jeffress says this would hugely increase the odds that some jury member would be prejudiced by exposure to it. Also, in the event of a future trial, it would be impossible to find a second set of unbiased jurors.

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.

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But this doesn't sell with Judge Reggie Walton. The tapes (all eight hours or so) will be released as soon as they've been played in full for the jury. (Slate will endeavor to bring you some juicy clips shortly thereafter.)

10:08 a.m.: A long break as the judge leaves to deal with various backstage matters. The courtroom instantly morphs into an airport lounge—filled almost entirely with lawyers and journalists. Out come the BlackBerries, the crosswords, and the gossip circles.

Standing up to stretch my legs, I try to peek over the shoulder of the courtroom artist. I like to see what he's working on. Last week, I expected to find sketches of Scooter Libby filling his pad, but it turned out he was engrossed in a beautiful portrait of Nina Totenberg (the NPR correspondent who sits in the front row of the press section). Could it be love? And has Hollywood ever made a courtroom artist rom-com? I see potential.

11:15 a.m.: Defense attorney Ted Wells continues his cross examination of Agent Debbie Bond. We're in the depths of the labyrinth now. Sample line from my notes: "As of July 11, Libby was saying that Rove was saying that Novak was saying that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA."

Wells hammers at selected minutiae, attempting both to trip up Agent Bond and, more broadly, to dramatize that all our memories are faulty. When Bond admits that she misspoke in some earlier testimony, Wells springs to life. "Sometimes people make mistakes, right?" he asks. "Yes," Bond mumbles. "And you said it in good faith, right?" he asks, with a twinkle in his eye. Again, she miserably assents.

12:24 p.m.: We break for lunch. I've discovered the cafe in the National Gallery of Art, right across the street from the courthouse. Quiet, relaxing, relatively lawyer- and journalist-free. Tomorrow, I might even find time to check out the Jasper Johns exhibit.

2:42pm: Last week, I considered buttonholing prosecutor Fitzgerald in the men's room. Today's men's room cameo: Scooter Libby himself. He enters just as I'm drying my hands. Despite the enforced proximity, this seems an awkward venue for asking questions about the case. So, I don't.

3:10 p.m.: Agent Bond is dismissed. And now it's audio-tape time. Get ready for eight hours of scratchy recordings! On these tapes, Scooter Libby will be answering questions (I believe solely) from prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. As Libby is a trained attorney, and Fitzgerald a no-nonsense government prosecutor, I'm not expecting much in the way of Preston Sturges banter.

Yet right off the top, we get a flash of Libby comedy. When he's directed to explain his nickname to the grand jury, Libby asks with a chuckle, "Are we classified in here?" He then notes that his family is from the South, and that this nickname is "less uncommon there than it is up here." A classic non-explanation explanation.

Soon after, Fitzgerald asks Libby if he was a source for columnist Robert Novak (when Novak wrote about Valerie Plame in July 2003). Libby answers with a firm "no." But for the next two hours, as the tape rolls on, Libby gets decidedly fuzzier. The bulk of his answers involve the phrase "I don't recall." Sometimes he mixes things up with an "I don't recollect."

3:46 p.m.: On the tapes, Fitzgerald zeroes in on Libby's discussions with Vice President Dick Cheney. At this stage of the investigation, in March 2004, it's evident that Fitzgerald's still aiming his sights at top figures in the administration. He keeps pressing Libby about a June 12 conversation in which Cheney first told Libby about Valerie Plame. Libby describes Cheney saying "in an off-hand manner, as a curiosity, that [Wilson's] wife worked at the CIA."

Fitzgerald won't stop picking at this scab. Libby reiterates that Cheney mentioned Plame's CIA employment in a "curiosity sort of a fashion," and not in a manner that was "matter of fact and straight." Asked for a third time, Libby goes back to the same well, describing the tidbit as "just a little bit of a curiosity sort of thing."

I will admit that to my ears, the word "curiosity"—which Libby took pains to repeat in these three separate answers—felt very much like a rehearsed bit of terminology. It's fairly clear that Libby's trying to portray Cheney's (and his) interest in Plame as a casual thing. When Fitzgerald follows up by asking if their discussion of Plame involved any talk of nepotism (i.e., she sent her husband to Niger on a junket), Libby says he doesn't recall anything like that.

4:11 p.m.: Asked to describe his duties as the vice president's chief of staff, Libby notes that he sometimes handles pedestrian issues. "I might have something about his residence, you know. If there's a leak in the roof."

The word "leak" resounds through the courtroom speakers. Perhaps an unfortunate example for Libby to have chosen. Or—paranoia alert!—is he setting us up? Maybe later he'll dismiss some handwritten note about a "leak" as a reminder that he needed to call a roofer?

4:31 p.m.: Fitzgerald asks if Libby ever discussed Valerie Plame with Marc Grossman, the undersecretary of state who was the first witness in this trial (testifying that he indeed told Libby that Plame was a CIA employee). Libby answers, "I don't recall." Fitzgerald presses: "You have no memory of that whatsoever?" Libby replies, "Sorry sir, I don't."

4:41 p.m.: For the fourth time, at the merciless prodding of Fitzgerald, Libby characterizes the moment when Cheney first mentioned Valerie Plame. Once again, Libby seems to be sticking to a script. Cheney's comment was "offhand, sort of curious." (There's that word for the fourth time.)

As Cheney opened up what turned out to be a gargantuan can of worms, Libby tells the grand jury he was thinking, it "might mean nothing, it might mean something. I don't know."

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