Monday, January 29, 2007

Fleischer Tags Libby and Confesses Leaking [Updated]

David Corn
The Nation

Taking the witness stand in the Scooter Libby trial on Monday, Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's former press secretary, could not rely on his old friends, spin and deny. Instead, he shared an account that harmed Libby's defense, that spared the White House a new embarrassment, and that created a riddle.

Testifying as a prosecution witness, Fleischer--who cooperated with special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald only after pleading the Fifth Amendment and obtaining immunity--told the jurors of a lunch he had with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on July 7, 2003. This was one day after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson published an op-ed piece asserting he had inside information showing the White House had twisted the prewar intelligence and a week before the leak outing his wife as a CIA officer appeared in rightwing journalist Robert Novak's column. At the lunch, Libby, according to Fleischer, passed along what Fleischer considered an intriguing "nugget" of information: that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had sent her husband on the fact-finding trip to Niger during which Wilson concluded that the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium there was highly dubious. Libby was even specific about where Wilson's wife worked within the CIA: the Counterproliferation Division, a unit in the agency's clandestine operations directorate. Fleischer said that Libby mentioned the name of Wilson's wife and told him, "This is hush-hush, this is on the QT, not very many people know about this." Fleischer had not heard anything previously about Valerie Wilson.

The conversation was "odd," Fleischer testified. He noted that this was the first time he ever had lunch with Libby and that the vice president's chief of staff was not someone whom Fleischer considered a "source"--that is, a fellow White House official who would regularly tell Fleischer what was happening within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Usually when Fleischer asked Libby questions about White House policies or actions, the "typical response," he said, was that Libby would tell him to check with Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser. ... [s]ee the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff: HUBRIS: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War.)


Fleischer testified confidently, as a fellow accustomed to fielding tough questions could be expected to do. He also admitted that he, too, had leaked information about Valerie Wilson to reporters.

This is what happened, Fleischer said: A day or so after his lunch with Libby, he was on Air Force One in a staff cabin. The president was touring Africa, and the Wilson controversy was raging, as reporters continued to hurl questions at the White House about Bush's use of the Niger charge in his prewar State of the Union. Fleischer was reading a classified CIA account of Wilson's trip that had been handed to him to by Rice. (He and other White House officials thought this document contained information that undermined Joe Wilson's criticism of the administration.) Sitting nearby was White House communications director Dan Bartlett (now counselor to the president). Bartlett was reading another document on the Wilson matter--probably a version of the State Department memo mentioned above. Bartlett, Fleischer said, exclaimed, "I can't believe he or they are saying the vice president sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger....His wife sent him. She works at the CIA." Bartlett wasn't speaking specifically to Fleischer, according to Fleischer; he was just "venting." Fleischer said nothing to Bartlett and kept on reading his own document. But he now had two sources--Libby and Bartlett--on Valerie Wilson's CIA connection.

Then on July 11, when Bush was in Uganda and visiting with children with AIDS, Fleischer sidled up to two reporters traveling with the president: David Gregory of NBC News and John Dickerson, then of Time, now of Slate. The night before, CBS News had reported that the White House had known the uranium-in-Africa charge was false at the time it was placed in Bush's speech, and Fleischer was looking to rebut this damaging charge. He told Gregory and Dickerson about Wilson's wife, hoping this would reinforce the White House claim that it had known nothing about the origins of the Wilson trip or Wilson's findings. But, according to Fleischer, the two reporters didn't react. They didn't take out their notebooks. They didn't ask follow-up questions. "Like a lot of things I said to the press," Fleischer testified. "It had no impact....This said to me that nobody really cares who sent Ambassador Wilson." Neither Gregory nor Dickerson (who was in the courtroom as Fleischer testified) broke the news about Valerie Wilson.

Full Article


John Dickerson in Slate:

I wanted to raise my hand and ask, "Your Honor, may I approach the bench?"

I was at the Scooter Libby trial to cover it, and all of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of the case. In his testimony today, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told the courtroom—which included me—that when I was a White House correspondent for Time magazine, he had told me that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.

He did?

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