Libby a Scapegoat, His Lawyer Tells Jurors

By NEIL A. LEWIS

New York Times

January 23, 2007

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 — In his opening statement today, the chief defense lawyer for I. Lewis Libby Jr. set the stage for a nasty bout of finger-pointing in the Bush administration, asserting that Mr. Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff, had been made a scapegoat to protect the president’s longtime political strategist, Karl Rove.

The unexpected statement by Theodore V. Wells Jr. was the first sign that Mr. Libby, who is facing five felony counts, would seek to deflect some of the blame on to his former White House colleagues. Until today, Mr. Libby’s defense to perjury and obstruction of justice charges was that he might simply have remembered incorrectly what he testified to in a grand jury and to F.B.I. agents.

Mr. Wells told the jury that the unnamed White House officials wanted to protect Mr. Rove because they believed his survival as President Bush’s political adviser was crucial to the health of the Republican Party.

Mr. Wells Jr. said his client, known by his nickname, “Scooter” was innocent and that a decision was made that “Scooter Libby was to be sacrificed.”

It was important to keep Mr. Rove out of trouble, Mr. Wells said, because he was the Mr. Bush’s right-hand man and “was most responsible for seeing the Republican Party stayed in office. He had to be protected.”

Mr. Rove, who has not been charged, has acknowledged having been one of the sources for a July 14 column by Robert Novak that first disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame as a Central Intelligence Agency officer and led to the investigation resulting in Mr. Libby’s indictment.

The remarks by Mr. Wells followed the opening statement of the chief prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who told the jury that the evidence was clear that Mr. Libby knowingly lied under oath about his conversations with three reporters about Ms. Plame, who is also known by her married name, Valerie Wilson.

Mr. Fitzgerald provided his own dramatic moment of the day when he played audio tapes of Mr. Libby’s grand jury testimony in March, 2004.

But before doing so, he meticulously laid the groundwork for his case that Mr. Libby had lied during those appearances. He first presented charts showing that Mr. Libby learned about Ms. Wilson in conversations with several fellow administration officials in June and early July 2003, and that he also talked to reporters and other administration officials about her identity in that same time period.

Jurors then listened intently as Mr. Libby’s voice wafted through the courtroom while he sat silently at the defense table. Mr. Libby was heard to say that he believed he first learned about Ms. Wilson in a conversation with Tim Russert of NBC on Thursday, July 10. Mr. Libby also told the grand jury that he was taken aback by Mr. Russert’s information.

“You can’t be startled about something on Thursday that you told other people about on Monday and Tuesday,” Mr. Fitzgerald said referring to conversations Mr. Libby had only days before.

Further, he said, Mr. Russert will testify that his July 10 telephone conversation with Mr. Libby did not include any mention of Ms. Wilson. Mr. Libby, he said, had telephoned instead to complain about a talk show on the network.

“The evidence will show the conversation he claims took place about Wilson’s wife never happened,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “And even if it did happen he couldn’t have been surprised.”

Mr. Libby is charged with five felony accounts for lying to the grand jury and also to agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who were investigating the leak of Ms. Plame’s name to Mr. Novak.

Ms. Wilson’s identity was disclosed just days after her husband, Mr. Wilson, wrote a commentary in The New York Times asserting that the Bush administration had distorted intelligence about Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium in Africa to build the case for war.

Mr. Libby had testified that he did not discuss Ms. Wilson’s identity with Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times, and Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine. They have both testified that he had, in fact, discussed Ms. Wilson with them.

In the trial’s opening day, Mr. Fitzgerald’s task was to keep the issue before jurors simple and streamlined: were Mr. Libby’s statements true about his conversations with reporters? To that end, he spoke for only about an hour in outlining his case.

The mission of Mr. Wells, in contrast, was to present the case as hopelessly complicated, thus leaving the jurors in doubt about the validity of the charges. Mr. Wells spoke for nearly two-and-a half hours, in which he ranged over issues of the reliability of memory, Mr. Libby’s duties -- which included during the relevant period, crises in Liberia and Turkey -- and threats from al Qaeda on the days that Mr. Libby spoke to reporters.

But his most startling comment was his assertion that Mr. Libby became enmeshed in legal difficulty because of White House efforts to protect Mr. Rove.

Mr. Libby, Mr. Wells said, complained to Mr. Cheney that he was being set up as the fall guy. The Vice President supported that view, Mr. Wells said, and wrote a note by hand saying: “Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy who was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.”

He offered his interpretation of the note, explaining that “incompetence” was a reference to the fact that the C.I.A. had mistakenly allowed the White House to use inaccurate information in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union speech about Iraq’s efforts to obtain uranium in Africa. The staff official, he said, was Mr. Rove. Mr. Libby had been assigned to speak to reporters to straighten out the confusion from Mr. Bush’s speech, a chore Mr. Cheney likened to sticking his head in the meat grinder.

Mr. Wells did not, however, make it clear how the purported efforts to shield Mr. Rove caused Mr. Libby to become embroiled in the issue, but for suggesting that the attention paid to the disclosure of Ms. Wilson’s name obliged Mr. Libby to engage in the perilous task of talking with reporters.

Mr. Wells noted that in his grand jury appearances and interviews with the F.B.I., Mr. Libby also testified that he first learned of Ms. Wilson’s identity from Mr. Cheney.

The charges against Mr. Libby, Mr. Wells said, amounted to “a weak, paper-thin circumstantial case about ‘he said-she said’.”