WASHINGTON – Top White House officials tried to blame vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for the 2003 leak of a CIA operative's identity to protect President Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove, Libby's defense attorney said Tuesday as his perjury trial began.
Libby is accused of lying to FBI agents, who began investigating after syndicated columnist Robert Novak revealed that a chief Bush administration critic, Joseph Wilson, was married to CIA operative Valerie Plame.
When the leak investigation was launched, White House officials cleared Rove of wrongdoing but stopped short of doing so for Libby. Libby, who had been asked to counter Wilson's criticisms, felt betrayed and sought out his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, Wells said.
"They're trying to set me up. They want me to be the sacrificial lamb," attorney Theodore Wells said, recalling Libby's end of the conversation. "I will not be sacrificed so Karl Rove can be protected."
Rove was one of two sources for Novak's story. The other was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Nobody, including Rove and Armitage, has been charged with the leak. Libby is accused of lying to investigators and obstructing the probe into the leak.
Cheney's notes from that meeting underscore Libby's concern, Wells said.
"Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder," the note said, according to Wells.
The description of the White House infighting was a rare glimpse into the secretive workings of Bush's inner circle. It also underscores how hectic and stressful the White House had become when the probe was launched.
By pointing the finger at Rove, whom he referred to as "the lifeblood of the Republican party," Wells sought to cast Libby as a scapegoat.
"He is an innocent man and he has been wrongly and unjustly and unfairly accused," Wells said.
The White House declined to comment on the ongoing Libby trial.
As the trial opened with a preview of each side's position, it was clear that the jury will be tasked with sorting through conflicting statements in a high-profile case that has opened a very public window on the behind-the-scenes Washington practice of leaking sensitive information to the news media.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told a far different story from Wells. He described for jurors a Bush administration effort to beat back early criticism of the Iraq war and accused Libby of lying to investigators about his role in that campaign.
Using a computerized calendar during opening statement, Fitzgerald described a tumultuous week in 2003 when he said the White House was under "direct attack" from Wilson.
Fitzgerald said Libby learned from five people — from Cheney to members of the CIA and State Department — that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Libby discussed that fact to reporters and others in the White House, Fitzgerald said.
"But when the FBI and grand jury asked about what the defendant did," Fitzgerald said, "he made up a story."
Libby told investigators he learned about Plame from NBC News reporter Tim Russert. But Fitzgerald told jurors that was clearly a lie because Libby had already been discussing the matter inside and outside of the White House.
"You can't learn something on Thursday that you're giving out on Monday," Fitzgerald said.
Libby says he didn't lie but was simply bogged down by national security issues and couldn't remember his conversations with New York Times report Judith Miller, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and Russert.
"He spends his day trying to connect the dots to be sure we don't have another 9/11," Wells said.
Opening statements were expected to continue into Tuesday afternoon. The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.