WASHINGTON – Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified Monday he first heard that a prominent war critic's wife worked at the CIA from vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. He said he thought the information might help deflect critical questions from reporters.
Fleischer said Libby told him about Valerie Plame's job at the CIA over a lunch in the White House mess on July 7, 2003. But Libby has told investigators he thought he first learned about Plame on July 10 from NBC reporter Tim Russert.
Four other government witnesses also have said they discussed Plame with Libby before July 10, and the discrepancy between those accounts and what Libby told the FBI and a grand jury are a major component of the perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.
Libby now says his memory failed him when he spoke to Russert.
The appearance of Fleischer, President Bush's chief spokesman from 2001 through mid-2003, slightly swelled the crowd of trial onlookers, including veteran reporters eager to see a White House press secretary questioned under oath.
Acknowledging that he fielded lots hostile questions at the White House, Fleischer proved to be a calm and unflappable witness, even under cross-examination by defense attorney William Jeffress. He often turned to speak directly to the jurors, sometimes using hand gestures.
Fleischer testified under an immunity agreement with prosecutors. He said he sought the deal after reading about the investigation and worrying, "Oh my God. Did I somehow play a role in outing a CIA operative?" He insisted he believed throughout that the information was not classified.
Fleischer said his lunch with Libby was their first ever and had been scheduled by Libby in anticipation of Fleischer's imminent departure to start his own company.
After talk of career plans and the Miami Dolphins, the subject shifted to the controversy raging over criticism by Plame's husband, ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, of President Bush's State of Union address in January 2003.
Bush had said Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons, and that had become part of the justification for war with Iraq. Since then, Wilson had said in print and on television that he was sent to Niger to investigate the report and had debunked it in 2002. Wilson claimed questions by Cheney motivated his trip and that Cheney should have received his report months before Bush repeated the story in his speech.
Previous testimony showed Cheney's office was working to get word out that Cheney didn't send Wilson to Niger and had never heard of Wilson, his trip or his conclusions until press reports in spring 2003.
Libby said Wilson was sent to Niger by his wife and she worked at the CIA in the counter-proliferation division, Fleischer testified. "I believe he mentioned her name and said something like, `This is hush-hush, this on the Q-T, not very many people know this."'
"My sense is that Mr. Libby was telling me this was kinda newsy," Fleischer added. He did not think the information was classified, however, because whenever he was told or given classified information "people would always say, `This is classified. You cannot use it."'
Fleischer said he again heard about Plame four days later from White House communications director Dan Bartlett aboard Air Force One during Bush's trip to Africa. Bartlett was reading a document and began "venting" to no one in particular his displeasure that reporters kept writing that Cheney had sent Wilson to Niger.
"His wife sent him," Fleischer recalled Bartlett saying. "She works at the CIA."
Fleischer said he relayed that information later in the day to John Dickerson of Time magazine and David Gregory of NBC in Uganda.
The information "didn't seem to me to be very newsy," Fleischer testified, but "now I had one more little nugget to back up" the administration version.
As press secretary, reporters "challenge everything you say. They always want you to back it up," Fleischer testified. He said he thought, "Maybe this will help this go away because it backs up the White House statement."
Jeffress tried to suggest that Fleischer might have heard the Plame story first from Bartlett and was trying to protect him.
Wasn't Bartlett Fleischer's boss?
"Nominally," Fleischer said, asserting he worked for Bush.
Jeffress got Fleischer to acknowledge he saw reporters between July 7-10, but he said he didn't tell any of them about Plame until after hearing from Bartlett.
But Fleischer would not back off his contention that he heard about her job from Libby first. He conceded only that he wasn't absolutely sure Libby used her name.