RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And a former White House press secretary was in a Washington, DC courtroom yesterday. Ari Fleischer testified at the perjury and obstruction of justice trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who had been a vice presidential aide. On the stand, Ari Fleischer contradicted Libby's account of when he, Libby, learned the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plaim Wilson.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: The parade of current and former Bush administration heavies continued yesterday, as details of intrigue and infighting at the Bush White House in the spring and summer of 2003. As former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer put it, there was something in the air that spring, hints, and more in the press, that the president - in his state of the union speech justifying an invasion of Iraq - had misled the American public. The president in his speech had cited intelligence information about an Iraqi attempt to buy uranium for a nuclear weapons program. And now there were reports that the information had been false. On July 6th, Ambassador Joseph Wilson went public, claiming that he'd been sent on a mission by the vice president and had reported back that the uranium story was bogus.
At the white house the next day, press secretary Fleischer had a long scheduled lunch with Cheney's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby. Yesterday Fleischer testified that in the course of that lunch, Libby reiterated that it wasn't Cheney who'd sent Wilson on the mission, it was Wilson's wife. She works for the CIA in the Counter Proliferation Division, Fleischer quoted Libby as saying.
The vice president's chief of staff told the press secretary the information was very hush-hush, very much on the QT. But Fleischer said he did not take that to mean that the information was classified, since Libby did not follow the strict protocol of telling him the information was classified and couldn't be disclosed to others. And, in fact, within days, Fleischer said he passed the information on to a couple of reporters during a presidential trip to Africa. By then, he said, the White House was actively pointing the finger at the CIA, blaming the agency for the infamous 16-words in the president's speech about uranium.
Then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters that if the CIA had objected to the words, they would not have been included in the speech. And to reinforce that message, Fleischer said he mentioned to two reporters that Ambassador Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and that she had sent him on a fact-finding trip, not the vice president.
Months later, Fleischer told the jury, when he read in the newspapers that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to conduct an investigation of the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity, he was horrified. He said that he thought to himself, oh, my God, did I play a role in outing a CIA agent? I could be in very big trouble. He quickly contacted a lawyer and then refused to testify before the grand jury until he was granted immunity from prosecution.
Lawyers for defendant Libby may have thought that immunity grant would give them ammunition to discredit Fleischer. But Libby's lawyer was just as unsuccessful at ruffling Fleischer, as reporters were in the years he deflected their blows in the White House briefing room. Indeed, Fleischer was a good deal more animated when talking to the jury, as opposed to the press, often smiling and gesturing as he testified.
Fleischer was the fifth witness from the White House, State Department, or CIA to testify about discussions they had with defendant Libby about the wife of Ambassador Wilson and her CIA identity. All have said their discussions were prior to the date Libby told the grand jury that he learned of her identity.
Fleischer was followed to the witness stand by Vice President Cheney's current chief of staff, David Addington, widely viewed in Washington as, quote, Cheney's Cheney. Addington to testify that in July of 2003, he met with Libby in a tiny office off the vice president's office in the West Wing of the White House. Addington had once worked for the CIA and Libby wanted to know whether, if someone had been sent on a trip by his CIA spouse, there would be any paperwork to show that. Addington testified that there likely would be, since, as he put it, this is the government so there almost always is paperwork.
Addington said that the door to the next office where the vice president's secretary sat was closed. And at one point, Libby motioned for Addington to keep his voice down.
Today, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller is scheduled to testify. She went to jail for nearly three months before finally testifying about three conversations that she said she had with Libby about Ambassador Wilson and his wife.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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