Dispatches From the Scooter Libby Trial

To the Witness Stand, Agent Bond. Debbie Bond.
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 1 2007 11:18 PM

Dispatches From the Scooter Libby Trial

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10:24 a.m.: Scooter Libby arrives and sits at his defense table, 10 feet in front of me. Having stared at the back of this man's head for hours on end last week, I've come to wonder: Who is this tiny, tiny fellow? Not more than 5-foot-7, to my eye. Sleek and slight like a kitten. Wears a digital watch with a Velcro band. Also wears a little beaded bracelet around his wrist. And writes semiperverted novels set in 1903 Japan. I admit it: You fascinate me, sir.

10:42 a.m.: Judge Walton arrives, but the jury is held out of the room as we engage in another lawyer slap fight. At issue this time: whether the jury should see videotapes of former White House Press Secretary Scott McLellan saying, in October 2003, to the assembled media hordes, that he had personally talked to Scooter Libby and that Libby was not involved in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity. (Note: Everyone agrees that McLellan did this only after being pressured by the vice president's office.)

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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The defense doesn't want these tapes played (because the defense doesn't want to make anything easy for the prosecution). But prosecutor Fitzgerald argues that the tapes help us understand Libby's state of mind when, later that same month, he was questioned by FBI agents investigating the Plame leak. Fitzgerald figures that after McLellan was urged to go to bat for Libby, and McLellan dutifully went before the cameras to say that Libby was innocent (and also that whichever scoundrel had leaked would immediately be booted from the administration), well, Libby was "locked in with his feet planted in cement." He couldn't possibly tell FBI agents, just days after McCllellan's performance, that he in fact was involved with the leak. It would mean making McLellan (and the White House) look silly, and also mean losing his job. Even without the fear of criminal proceedings hanging over his head, Libby had a motive to lie.

Libby's team opposes the videotapes in part because they tend to undermine the defense's grand narrative that Libby was being "scapegoated" by the White House, and that the White House was protecting Karl Rove while sacrificing Libby. As Fitzgerald puts it: "This rebuts the notion that the White House was throwing him [Libby] under the bus. Mr. McLellan was standing in front of the bus."

In the end, the prosecution wins. The defense wins a small concession: McLellan's answers will be shown on video, but the press corps' questions to him will be read to the jury from transcripts.

12:34 p.m.: We break for lunch. The jury has still not been called into the courtroom. I eat a horrifically bad sandwich at a chain restaurant near the courthouse.

2:19 p.m.: The jurors are finally brought in, after almost four hours of twiddling their thumbs in a back room. Now the prosecution fires up the projector and—oh look, it's Scott McClellan! I'd recognize that doughy, flustered face from a mile away. I get a little nostalgic watching him stutter awkwardly through his responses.

In the video clips, and the transcripts read to the jury, McClellan answers questions about the leak of Valerie Plame's identity. Standing at the White House pressroom podium, speaking to reporters, McClellan says that "no one wants to get to the bottom of this more than the president." (We'll take his word for that.) McClellan says that he personally talked to Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, just to be totally certain about it, and that they both assured him they were not involved. (Rove has since admitted he leaked to columnist Robert Novak; Libby is now on trial for allegedly lying about leaking.) McClellan says that if someone in the administration was involved, they will no longer be a part of the administration. (Libby did resign when he was indicted. But Rove just keeps on truckin'. He is currently the president's deputy chief of staff.)

2:53 p.m.: The government calls witness Deborah Bond. Or, as they refer to her, "Agent Debbie Bond." (Which is almost as cool a name as Scooter Libby.)

Bond is a 19-year veteran of the FBI. She has a severe, straight-lipped face; a locked-tight jaw; and graying hair, cropped even with her earlobes. She speaks in a Dragnet monotone.

Bond was present for the FBI questioning of Libby in October and November 2003 (his grand jury appearance was later, in early 2004), and she's here to describe those sessions. She tells us that during the first questioning, Libby volunteered a handwritten note that he said he'd recently found in his files.

This note recorded a telephone conversation Libby had with Cheney sometime around June 12 that year. During this talk, Cheney told Libby that Joe Wilson's wife (that is, Valerie Plame) worked at the CIA. Libby claimed to the FBI that he'd forgotten all about this conversation when he talked to Tim Russert a month later, on July 10, and thus was surprised when Russert told him that Wilson's wife worked at the agency. (Russert, meanwhile, is expected to testify next week that he never said boo about Plame, and that his discussion with Libby that day was in fact about the TV show Hardball.) Libby told the FBI that it was only later that he discovered his handwritten note and suddenly realized he'd heard about Plame from Dick Cheney long before he'd heard the same thing from Tim Russert.

This is a tricky little part of the case that's hard to understand. Let's buy, just for the moment, the prosecution's theory that Libby is inventing a careful lie to tell the FBI agents. Then why would Libby want to rope Cheney into his story? Possible answers: 1) Libby knows the FBI will eventually discover the existence of this note, so he wants to explain it up front. 2) He doesn't want to force Cheney into telling lies to back him up, and he knows Cheney faces no danger over this conversation (because Cheney was just telling Libby something—not leaking it to a reporter outside the administration).

But why, if Libby readily admits that he first heard about Plame from Cheney (and even has the note to show it), would he want to tell the FBI (remember, we're still pretending that he's crafting a careful lie here) that he temporarily forgot about the Cheney thing and thus, in his mind, first learned about Plame from Tim Russert?

Prosecutor Fitzgerald seems to be making the case that Libby was "shifting his story from an official source to a non-official source," (ie, from Cheney to Russert). Libby couldn't be sure what Time reporter Matt Cooper would say (or not say) to investigators, but he had to assume that Cooper might tell them that Libby had confirmed Plame's identity to Cooper on July 12. (In this scenario, Libby is more confident, for some reason, that New York Times reporter Judy Miller will keep her mouth shut. Of course, as we know, Miller eventually yapped—after serving jail time and getting the OK from Libby.) If Libby was confirming Plame's identity to Cooper based on Tim Russert saying "all the reporters know" about Plame, that's one thing. If he was confirming it based on Cheney having told him, that would be leaking.

Whew. I'm dizzy now and have only the vaguest inkling that my scenario makes sense. No doubt various wild-eyed bloggers can take this ball and run with it. Or deflate it and kick it limply back in my face.

3:08 p.m.: Agent Bond says Libby claimed, under questioning, that he never discussed Valerie Plame with Judy Miller. (Miller's testimony earlier this week directly contradicted this assertion. Miller said she discussed Plame with Libby on multiple occasions.)

4:07 p.m.: The defense begins its cross examination of Agent Bond. It is mad contentious. At one point, Bond says Libby "claimed" he first learned about Plame from the vice president. Defense attorney Ted Wells takes issue with the word. "You mean he 'said' it? He didn't use the word 'claim.'" Bond sticks by her guns: "It's what he claimed."

With this, Scooter Libby's heretofore placid wife, who is sitting directly in front of me, turns her head away from the courtroom, shakes it in disbelief, frowns, and sighs. Meanwhile, the judge intervenes with a chuckle. "Is that what he said?" he asks Bond, trying to move things along. "It's what he told us," says Bond, unwilling to completely back down.

"Did he also 'tell' you his name was Scooter Libby?" asks Wells with a hint of sarcasm.

"It took us a long time to get him to tell us what his first initial meant," says Bond, drawing a laugh. "He still won't tell me," says Wells.

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