WASHINGTON – Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was eager to make public that the CIA, not Vice President Dick Cheney, sent an ex-ambassador to check on Iraq's efforts to obtain nuclear material, a former agency executive said Wednesday.
Former CIA Iraq Mission Manager Robert L. Grenier appeared as a government witness in the trial of Libby on charges of obstruction and lying. He testified he told Libby that the idea of sending ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger was the brainchild of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, who worked in the CIA office that sent him in 2002.
A year later, Wilson became a prominent critic of the war, based on what he found in Niger.
Ultimately, Grenier's testimony could help prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald establish a motive for Libby to confirm her identity and employer to reporters in 2003, which Libby denies doing.
But defense attorney William Jeffress quickly questioned how Grenier's memory managed to improve substantially since he talked to investigators in 2003-2005. The defense has attacked government witnesses for inconsistencies in their statements during the investigation of the leak of Plame's name.
Such attacks on memory set the stage for the defense argument that Libby didn't lie to investigators about what he told reporters about Plame, but merely had his own memory lapse.
Plame's identity and her role in Wilson's trip were leaked to columnist Robert Novak in July 2003 shortly after Wilson publicly criticized Bush for portraying Iraq as trying to purchase uranium in Niger -- months after Wilson told the government the story was untrue.
Libby is charged with obstructing the investigation of the Plame leak and lying to the FBI and a grand jury.
Grenier said Libby called him June 11, 2003, to ask about the Wilson mission and sounded upset that Cheney's office was being blamed for sending Wilson. One of Libby's lawyers, Theodore Wells, has said Cheney was angry that Wilson was suggesting Cheney had been behind the trip, should have gotten Wilson's report and may have suppressed it.
Later that day, Grenier said, he told Libby "it was not only the Office of the Vice President driving the Wilson trip but also inquiries from State and Defense."
"Mr. Libby asked if the CIA was willing to reveal that publicly," Grenier testified.
Grenier said he checked, told Libby the CIA agreed to the release and put the CIA's spokesman on the phone with a Cheney press officer to work out details.
He testified he also told Libby that Wilson's wife worked in the CIA unit that sent Wilson and "that's where the idea came from," because she knew he had contacts in Niger.
On cross-examination, Jeffress got Grenier to acknowledge he hadn't been able to recall for the FBI in December 2003 whether he told Libby about Plame's job at CIA, and that he still was uncertain when he testified to the grand jury in January 2004 and July 2005.
Grenier's explanation -- elicited earlier by prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg in anticipation of Jeffress' attack -- was that "I kept going over it again and again in my mind" and remembered that after speaking with Libby "I felt guilty I said too much."
Grenier said his guilt arose from mentioning Plame's work at CIA.
"We guard identities pretty closely," Grenier said. "In the CIA, we have a habit that if we don't need to say something, we normally don't."
Libby told a grand jury that he believed he learned Plame's identity from NBC newsman Tim Russert on July 10, 2003.
Prosecutors say Libby learned it days earlier from a stream of government officials. Their first witnesses, Marc Grossman, the former No. 3 State Department official, and Grenier both said they told Libby about Plame in early June, 2003.
Under cross-examination, Grossman acknowledged some inconsistencies in his statements about the case over time.