Dispatches From the Scooter Libby Trial

The Grand Jury Grilling
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Feb. 6 2007 10:50 PM

Dispatches From the Scooter Libby Trial

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9:55 a.m: Let's fire up the tape player for Tuesday's grand jury recordings. The courtroom speakers fill the air with Scooter Libby's reedy, disembodied voice.

Hearing 10 seconds of my own voice played back to me can give me the willies. I can't imagine how uncomfortable Libby must feel, hearing himself talk for hour after hour, with dozens of strangers intently listening in. (Of course, the actual grand jury grilling he endured was no doubt vastly more uncomfortable, so perhaps this is tranquil by comparison.)

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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Today's tape starts out with some questions about New York Times reporter David Sanger. Earlier this morning, before the jury was brought in, Sanger's attorney was actually here, arguing that Sanger shouldn't be forced to appear as a witness for the defense. (Libby talked to Sanger during the time period under scrutiny, and they somehow managed not to talk about Valerie Plame. Which, the defense will argue, suggests that Libby wasn't really trying to leak this info—if he had been, why not tell every New York Times reporter in sight?)

Sanger's attorney frets that Sanger's "sources may dry up" if he testifies. This is what journalists always say to stay out of the witness box—it's their rationale for a law that would shield them from testifying. But this time, the judge finds some illogic in it. Sanger would be appearing at the request of his source (that is, Libby), and would be testifying on his source's behalf. Who wouldn't want to leak to a guy like that? Upshot: When the time comes, Sanger will have to take the stand.

10:09 a.m.: On the tape, Fitzgerald asks if it's fair to say that Joe Wilson's accusation—that the White House had misled the country into war—was the "most serious attack on the administration" since Bush had been elected. Libby dodges this, noting that there may have been some savage attacks on Bush's "tax policy, or some other policy."

But Fitzgerald's question is reason to pause for perspective. The Wilson brouhaha was perhaps the first real post-9/11, post-"Mission Accomplished" crack in Bush's armor. The administration's response (which, if you believe the evidence in this case, was awfully vindictive and petty) surely stems in part from the fact that they just weren't used to getting any guff.

10:14 a.m.: Libby identifies some notes written on a copy of the July 6, 2003, Wilson op-ed from the New York Times that's been entered into evidence. The handwriting is apparently Vice President Cheney's. At the top of the page, Cheney wrote, "Did his wife send him on a junket?"

10:20 a.m.: Fitzgerald hammers on the events of July 7, 2003. At 6:45 a.m. that day, there was a CIA briefing, at which (Libby acknowledges) Libby and Cheney "probably" asked the briefer about Joe Wilson. At 8:45 a.m., there was a senior staff meeting, at which Karl Rove and others were pleading to "get the message out" on Wilson. At 9:22 a.m., Cheney's press chief e-mailed then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer a set of talking points about Wilson's trip to Niger. At 9:36 a.m., Fleischer made these points to a press gaggle.

And at noon, Libby had lunch with Fleischer. Did he talk about Wilson at this lunch? On the tape, Libby says he can't recall.

Fitzgerald asks if Libby recalls the lunch itself; if he recalls talking about Fleischer's future plans; if he recalls talking about the Miami Dolphins. Libby says he remembers all these things. But he doesn't remember talking about Joe Wilson's wife.

Now Fitzgerald flips his hole card. He asks if Libby remembers telling Fleischer that the tidbit about Wilson's wife being a CIA employee was "hush-hush" and "on the Q.T." The specificity of these phrases strongly suggests that Fitzgerald has been talking to Fleischer. (Also that somebody's a fan of L.A. Confidential.) And on the tape, you can almost hear Libby realizing that he might in fact be screwed. His voice suddenly becomes much quieter (the quietest it's been on these tapes), as he says, yet again, "I don't recall that."

10:51 a.m.: Libby reads out the direct-dial phone number one would use to call him in the vice president's office. Reader, I was about to print it here for you, so you could ring up Scooter and give him a cheer or a jeer. But then I remembered that Libby resigned when he was indicted, so some other poor shmoe would be answering your calls for "Hugh Jass" and "Jacques Strappe."

11:16 a.m.: When the Bush administration decided to instantly declassify a National Intelligence Estimate (in July 2003), select (administration-friendly) excerpts from that document in an effort to rebut Joe Wilson's claims, and then have Scooter Libby leak those excerpts to the media, who did Scooter trust to spread the White House message? Judy Miller, "Miss Run Amok" herself. On the tapes, Libby says he sought Miller out for this important task because he felt she was "a responsible reporter."

11:31 a.m.: On July 8, 2003, two days after Wilson's op-ed appeared, Karl Rove said the administration was already "a day late" in responding. It was becoming a "process story" that was affecting "the president's trustworthiness."

11:38 a.m.: "Are you telling us under oath," Fitzgerald bellows on the tapes, "that you never thought that Mr. Wilson was hired due to nepotism?" Libby replies, "I don't know why he was hired."

11:46 a.m.: Fitzgerald brings up the infamous conversation Libby had with NBC's Tim Russert. (Sneak preview for Russert's turn in the witness chair, probably Wednesday.) Libby says he originally called Russert to complain about Hardball's Chris Matthews (who Libby says is a "rather outspoken fellow" prone to dissing the administration in unfair ways). Russert said he couldn't do anything, but suggested Libby call up Hardball's producer.

Then, Libby says, Russert asked if Libby knew that Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. "I was taken aback," Libby tells the grand jury. "I said, 'No, I don't know that.' Then Mr. Russert said, 'All the reporters know it.' And I said again, 'I don't know that.' I just wanted to be clear that I wasn't confirming anything for him."

Fitzgerald asks if Libby can remember the Hardball producer's name. "I think it's Shapiro," says Libby. Subtext: If he can recall the name of a Hardball producer he's never met, some eight months later, why can't Libby seem to recall anything else? (On the other hand, don't we all have oddly selective memories? We've seen all sorts of contradictions crop up in the witness testimony in this trial, over matters great and small.)

11:58 a.m.: A quote from Mary Matalin (Cheney's former press secretary) is redacted because of profanity. "Yes," says Libby. "She's … she's colorful."

12:03 p.m.: Fitzgerald tears into Libby's assertions about his call with Russert. In one of the more complicated questions I've ever heard asked at a trial, he inquires if Libby has a "specific recollection of remembering that you had forgotten that you knew that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA?"

1:36 p.m.: We come back from lunch—during which I pounded a 16-ounce can of Full Throttle energy drink. I will not fall asleep.

The lawyers are now arguing over what "accommodations and benefits" were provided to Tim Russert by the prosecution in return for Russert's testifying. I had hoped this would refer to autographed Buffalo Bills jerseys, but it's more about whether Russert's attorney demanded limits on what Russert could be asked about. According to the defense, there were three or four days of negotiations on this between Fitzgerald and Russert's counsel.

2:14 p.m.: The tapes resume. Libby describes his conversations with Judy Miller and Matt Cooper. This testimony, along with the Russert stuff, is at the core of what Libby's on trial for now: It's what he's supposed to have lied about, or, as he contends, mis-recalled. As Fitzgerald (on the tape) says it's time to adjourn the grand jury for the day, we hear Libby interrupt him to deliver an out-of-nowhere, unsolicited monologue about his own memory.

Libby tells the grand jurors that he gets "100 to 200 pages of material a day" to look over. That his workday goes from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. And that he "can't possibly recall all the things I think are important," never mind the unimportant things. In conclusion, he says, "I apologize if my recollection of this stuff is not perfect."