WASHINGTON – A federal judge refused on Friday to give I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby access to a wide range of information from several government agencies, saying he would not allow the former White House aide's trial in the CIA leak case to become a debate over the war in Iraq.
"You want to try the legitimacy of us going to war," U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton told lawyers for Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff. "I don't see how that will help us determine whether Mr. Libby lied when he talked to the FBI and went before the grand jury."
Walton ordered Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to turn over evidence — if he has any — of when and how President Bush and Vice President Cheney decided to declassify part of a secret government intelligence report on Iraq so Libby could disclose it to favored reporters in an effort to discredit administration critics in 2003.
The judge also seemed to be leaning toward denying a defense request for documents Fitzgerald has related to the activities of White House adviser Karl Rove, who remains under investigation and will be a defense witness if the prosecutor doesn't call him to testify.
Libby, 55, is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury about how he learned about CIA officer Valerie Plame and what he subsequently told reporters about her.
Lawyers for Libby wanted Walton to force Fitzgerald to turn over documents from the White House, CIA and State Department about a trip Plame's husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, took at the CIA's request in early 2002 to Niger.
The CIA sought to determine whether there was any truth to reports that Saddam Hussein's government had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger to make a nuclear weapon. Wilson discounted the reports. Nevertheless, the allegation wound up in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
Syndicated columnist Robert Novak named Plame in a column on July 14, 2003, eight days after Wilson alleged in an opinion piece in The New York Times that the Bush administration had twisted prewar intelligence on Iraq to justify going to war.
At Friday's hearing, Walton abandoned plans to gag the lawyers in the widely publicized case to keep them from talking to the media.
Theodore Wells, Libby's lawyer, told Walton that he wanted government records of Wilson's trip, Plame's role in the CIA decision to send him to Africa and reports done after his return to tell the jury how the charges against Libby came about.
"The trip is what the whole controversy is about," Wells said.
Libby's defense is that the White House wanted to attack Wilson's charges on their merits and wasn't interested in using Plame to smear the former ambassador.
The defense also plans to attack several government witnesses, including State Department official Marc Grossman, suggesting they are biased against Libby because of their connections to one another and to Wilson.
Wells said Grossman and Wilson went to college and came up through the ranks of the State Department together.
The defense attorney said he has five witnesses who will testify that Wilson told them his wife worked for the CIA. The defense team believes such testimony will show that her status was well-known.
Fitzgerald said he will not offer proof that the outing of Plame damaged national security.
The prosecutor also said he does not know when Bush and Cheney decided to declassify sections of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate dealing with Iraq's efforts to obtain yellowcake so Libby could share it with reporters.
Fitzgerald said all he has is Libby's testimony, in which he said he might have shared the information with reporters before the decision was officially made in July 2003.
Wells added that Libby was told several times to go forward but abruptly told to stop before he finally talked to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and The New York Times' Judith Miller.