Libby Perjury Trial Heads to Jury Room

A jury will begin deliberating the case against Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, after a tearful closing statement from Libby's lead defense attorney.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to a perjury trial that has as its backdrop the intelligence used to support the invasion of Iraq. White House aide Lewis Libby is charged with lying to a grand jury and the FBI during an investigation into a CIA leak. That leak involved a CIA operative whose husband was a critic of the war. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has this report on the last words jurors heard.

NINA TOTENBERG: Yesterday's closing arguments began methodically and ended theatrically with the chief defense lawyer choking down tears as he pleaded with the jury not to make Libby a scapegoat, and the prosecutor asking the jury to restore the truth to the judicial system.

To defense lawyers, the charges against Libby were madness - the criminalizing of a faulty memory. To the prosecution, Libby's grand jury and FBI testimony was about lying - an attempt to protect himself from being prosecuted for leaking classified information.

Prosecutors Patrick Fitzgerald and Peter Zeidenberg systematically picked apart the defense's faulty memory argument, contending that it is, quote, "just not credible" to believe that Libby could have forgotten that Valerie Wilson, the wife of a leading administration critic, worked at the CIA.

Not credible because her CIA job was seen as a way to discredit her husband to make it seem he'd been sent by her on a boondoggle instead of a real intelligence mission. Not credible, because in the month between June 11th and July 11th 2003, Libby had nine conversations with eight people - including Vice President Cheney - about Mrs. Wilson and her CIA job.

But defense lawyers Ted Wells and Bill Jeffers argued that Libby's memory is like everyone else's - imperfect. Indeed, they observed, every witness who testified had some problem with his or her own memory. Libby honestly believed he was hearing the information about Mrs. Wilson's CIA identity for the first time on July 10, 2003 from NBC reporter Tim Russert. Prosecutor Fitzgerald, however, countered that Russert's testimony gave the lie to the lie.

Russert testified he couldn't have told Libby that Mrs. Wilson worked for the CIA because he didn't know that information until days later when it was disclosed in a column by Robert Novak. Defense lawyer Jeffers said that Libby had no motive to lie, that federal law only makes disclosure of an intelligence agent's identity a crime if an individual knows the agent is covert.

There's no evidence she was covert, said Jeffers, or that the government was seeking to protect her identity. But prosecutor Fitzgerald countered that Libby's own CIA briefer told him after the Novak column was published that this was a very serious matter that could lead to an agent's harassment, torture, or death.

Defense lawyers also pointed out that Libby had talked to eight reporters in June and July of 2003, reporters who testified he did not tell them about Mrs. Wilson's identity. Prosecutor Fitzgerald countered that the vice president had chosen the reporter he wanted to leak to in order to rebut charges of twisted intelligence.

That reporter was Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, who testified that Libby told her once in June and again on July 8th about Mrs. Wilson's CIA identity. Prosecutors noted that on July 7th, Libby lunched with the President's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, and told him about Mrs. Wilson's CIA identity.

And yet we are to believe, said the prosecutor, that two days later, when Libby supposedly hears the same information from NBC's Russert, he is surprised and thinks this is new information? Defense lawyers countered that Libby's memory, if it was faulty, went awry not that week, but three months later when he was interviewed by the FBI.

Why, asked defense lawyer Wells, is Libby being treated differently from presidential adviser Karl Rove and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who both admitted disclosing information about Mrs. Wilson to reporters?

Concluded Wells, don't sacrifice Scooter Libby for how you may feel about Iraq or the Bush administration. He's a good man. He's been under my protection for the last month. I give him to you now, said Wells, his face contorting in tears. Give him back to me. Give him back.

Prosecutor Fitzgerald ended his rebuttal by telling the jury there is no evidence that anyone else lied to the grand jury. Not Rove or Armitage. Libby, said the prosecutor, simply made up a story and stuck to it. There was a cloud over the White House and the vice president's office, Fitzgerald said.

And the grand jury and the American public deserved a straight answer about who leaked classified information and whether they did it intentionally. Mr. Libby stole the truth from the judicial system. If you return a guilty verdict, you give the truth back.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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