In this week’s intelligence briefing: Iran and the terrorism lever, and a look behind the scenes at the Libby trial.
I get a lot of my story ideas from talking to contacts. These are people are who are still working in the intelligence community, or those that have left recently and work in the private sector. I include among them, a former state department terror analyst, who brought up a very important story.
He called it "Iran and the Terrorism Lever." The gist of his argument is that Iran has a lot more options to respond to U.S. pressure if they don’t like what we’re doing — whether it’s over Iraq, or pushing to end their nuclear ambitions. Since 1979, Iran has remained one of the leading examples of state sponsored terrorism through groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestine Islamic jihad and more recently, its al Qods brigade in Iraq.
My contact’s point is simply that Iran is a very different opponent than Iraq because they have the ability to respond with a terrorist campaign against U.S. interests.
As I write this week, we are still waiting for a verdict in the perjury trial of former chief of staff to the vice president, Scooter Libby. This is the hard part of being a journalist — the endless waiting. A good journalist must be aggressive and curious — both of these qualities can make us impatient! And that’s a killer when you are waiting for a verdict.
The jury began deliberating last Wednesday, February 21. We lost a juror yesterday who says she misunderstood the judge’s instructions to avoid the media. She was a museum curator and one of six white women on the jury. The other two women are black.
Whether this helps or hurts Libby is still unclear — though this is clearly what his defense team had pushed for. His lawyers argued to the judge that adding an alternate would mean starting the deliberations all over again, and two and a half days of work would be lost. The judge agreed so the panel resumed their work with 11 jurors.
Behind the scenes here is kind of interesting. This is the same building where the Lewinsky story played out. It is across the street from the National Gallery of Art in D.C., and right next store to the Canadian embassy.
The quarters are a little cramped for journalists — we are divided between two floors. On the ground floor, there is a pretty big room and we sit along these thin tables with our computers. The other day there was such a load on the court’s electrical system that it all crashed … which was the only piece of excitement we had. When anyone moves suddenly, or something odd crosses the wire, you can feel the whole room almost shake!
The other workspace is what journalists call their “make-shift office.” Right now, it’s on the fourth floor, where I am sitting and writing this blog. While this spot is not as close to the action, the computer access is better. There are little cubbyholes here (what amount to offices) for NBC, CBS, and NPR. FOX and CNN have desks next to the window. We eat most days in the courthouse cafeteria because nothing is very close. It is a little surreal being at one end of the cafeteria with your tray … and the defendant, Scooter Libby, is at the other with his defense team. But that’s how it works.
If we get a verdict this week, I’ll update the blog. What’s interesting to a lot of us is that the jury hasn’t asked any questions. All they’ve wanted is some poster board, photos of all the witnesses, and post it notes. It certainly sounds like they are making their own time lines. As juries go, this is a very smart bunch. There are several PHd’s and a former reporter for the Washington Post newspaper.
It was a long trial — about 5 weeks, but it all boils down to two conversations Libby had with the Washington bureau chief of NBC news, Tim Russert and former Time Magazine Correspondent Matt Cooper in mid July of 2003. Libby says the journalists told him about Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA operative who is married to Iraq war critic, Joe Wilson. The journalists say that’s not true. Russert says he didn’t know who she was until he read about her in the newspaper.
Libby is facing five counts, obstruction of justice, making false statements to the FBI and perjury before the grand jury, and can get 25-30 years.
It is very tense in these tight working spaces, even though all the news outlets know each other and we are trying to be relaxed. At the end of the day, when the verdict comes, the race is clear: whoever gets the story on the air first will win.
Well, we've had our first question in the Libby trial. There was great excitement here in the media room, until the judge announced from the bench that the question was confusing and he'd asked the jury for clarification.
The media room nearly went crazy with stuff like "Oh my God" and "What a let down." Add to the fact that it is extremely hot in here and everyone has picked up colds … you get the picture.
Half an hour later, the judge came back — everyone was poised at their computers, and the judge said the jury had come back and it made sense now, and they didn't need more help.
I wouldn't say the room went crazy, but it was beyond believable. We are now into our sixth day of deliberations and other than asking for office supplies, this is all that we've heard from the jury.
Once the notes were posted by the court, everyone huddled around to decipher what they were asking. It was about count 3 — one could argue is one of the weaker charges — that deals with Libby’s questioning by the FBI. Libby is accused of making false statements to the FBI when he claimed that in a conversation with Matt Cooper of Time Magazine, he said all the reporters are telling the administration that Valerie Plame Wilson works at the FBI.
The prosecution maintains that Libby learned about Valerie Plame Wilson from the vice president six weeks before, and in that conversation with Cooper, Libby in fact confirmed her role. This case is all about the tiniest details and more than a dozen journalists could not work out what exactly the jury's problem is. One guess is that the jurors are confused about what exactly the "false statement" is.
Are they deciding whether the conversation went down the way Libby described it to the FBI, or are they also considering the facts of the alleged statements?
Still confused? Many in the pressroom are as well. The conventional wisdom is that the jury has now dealt with the charges related to conversations with NBC's Tim Russert. So we could be half through, but with a jury, anything is possible.
"We would like clarification on the charges as stated under count 3, specifically: page 74 of the jury instructions, 'Count three of the indictment alleges that Mr. Libby falsely told the FBI on October 14 or November 26, 2003, that during a conversation with M. Cooper of Time Magazine on July 12, 2003, Mr. Libby told Mr. Cooper that reporters were telling the administration that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, but that Mr. Libby did not know if this was true'.
(I.e. Is the charge that the statement was made, or about the content of the statement itself.)"
Catherine Herridge is the Homeland Defense Correspondent for FOX News and hosts FOX News Live Saturday 12-2 p.m. ET. Since coming to FOX in 1996 as a London-based correspondent, she has since reported on the 2004 presidential elections, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Medicare fraud, prescription drug abuse and child prostitution. You can read the rest of her bio here.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.