WASHINGTON – Lawyers for Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide are signaling they may delve deeply at his criminal trial into infighting among the White House, the CIA and the State Department over pre-Iraq war intelligence failures.
In a prelude to a possible defense, the lawyers for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby also are suggesting that the State Department — not Libby — may be to blame for leaking the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame to the media.
Court papers filed late Friday raise the possibility a trial could become politically embarrassing for the Bush administration by focusing on the debate about whether the White House manipulated intelligence to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The defense team stated that in June and July 2003, Plame's CIA status was at most a peripheral issue to "the finger-pointing that went on within the executive branch about who was to blame" for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
"If the jury learns this background information" about finger-pointing "and also understands Mr. Libby's additional focus on urgent national security matters, the jury will more easily appreciate how Mr. Libby may have forgotten or misremembered ... snippets of conversation" about Plame's CIA status, the lawyers said.
Cheney's former chief of staff was indicted Oct. 28 on five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about how he learned of Plame's CIA employment and what he told reporters about her.
Three key prosecution witnesses are NBC correspondent Tim Russert, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper.
Libby's lawyers are asking U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton for access to government documents about a 2002 trip that Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, made to the African nation of Niger at the CIA's behest and about "his wife's involvement" with that mission.
Noting press reports last week, the court papers say there has been speculation that Armitage told The Washington Post's Bob Woodward that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, and speculation that Woodward's source and the primary source for conservative columnist Robert Novak are the same person.
Novak disclosed Plame's identity on July 14, 2003, eight days after Wilson contended in a New York Times op-ed column that the administration twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat from a nuclear weapons program.
"If the facts ultimately show that Mr. Armitage or someone else from the State Department was also Mr. Novak's primary source, then the State Department and certainly not Mr. Libby bears responsibility for the 'leak' that led to the public disclosure" of Plame's CIA identity, Libby's lawyers said.
In a conversation that Rove says he forgot about until a year after the investigation began, Rove spoke to Cooper about the CIA connection of Wilson's wife. Cooper subsequently wrote a story headlined, "A War On Wilson?"
Libby's lawyers say that "either the government or the defense may call Mr. Rove as a witness at trial" and note that "the grand jury's investigation may be continuing with respect to Mr. Rove or other witnesses."
The defense says the documents it seeks will help demonstrate that the White House did not launch a concerted effort to punish Wilson by leaking his wife's identity, as administration critics have alleged.
Libby also is asking for notes from a September 2003 meeting in the White House Situation Room where Colin Powell, who was secretary of state, is reported to have said that everyone knows Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and that it was Wilson's wife who suggested the CIA sent her husband to Niger.
"The media conflagration ignited by the failure to find WMD in Iraq and in part by Mr. Wilson's criticism of the administration, led officials within the White House, the State Department and the CIA to blame each other, publicly and in private, for faulty prewar intelligence about Iraq's WMD capabilities," the court papers state.
"The government's version of events blows out of proportion the minor role Ms. Wilson actually played and in doing so creates an impression that is highly prejudicial to Mr. Libby," they say.
Wilson's accusations stemmed from President Bush's assertion in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Based on his 2002 trip, Wilson said he had found it highly doubtful the nation of Niger had agreed to sell uranium yellowcake to Iraq, as alleged in faulty intelligence provided to the CIA.
Libby also said that he intends to show at trial that because he knew he was not a source for Novak's article, Libby had no motive to obstruct justice or mislead the FBI or the grand jury.
That approach could end up highlighting testimony by Rove, possibly to Libby's detriment.
The indictment alleges that several days before Novak's column exposed Plame, a White House official — Rove — crossed paths with Libby about Plame. Rove, the indictment states, related to Libby that Novak intended to write a column about Wilson's wife being a CIA employee involved in her husband's trip to Africa.