- Michael Isikoffinvestigative correspondent for Newsweek and co-author of the book Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
The prosecution has rested its case in the trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff. Libby faces five counts of lying to federal investigators, perjury and obstruction of justice in connection to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Plame’s identity was leaked after her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, questioned the Bush administration’s pre-war claims on Iraqi weapons. Meanwhile, a Pentagon investigation has concluded Bush administration officials engaged in inappropriate behavior in their handling of Iraq intelligence before the U.S. invasion. We’re joined by Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The prosecution has rested its case in the trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff. Libby faces five counts of lying to federal investigators, perjury and obstruction of justice in connection to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The prosecution’s key witness over the past two days has been Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief and the host of Meet the Press. Russert testified he didn’t talk about Plame with Libby, contradicting Libby’s claim. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald played the jury a recording that begins with Libby describing to Fitzgerald what he claims Russert told him.
SCOOTER LIBBY: “Did you know that his wife works at the CIA?”
PATRICK FITZGERALD: And you said?
SCOOTER LIBBY: “No, I don’t know that.”
PATRICK FITZGERALD: And his response?
SCOOTER LIBBY: “Yeah, all the” — something like, “Yes. Yeah, all the reporters know.”
PATRICK FITZGERALD: And your response?
SCOOTER LIBBY: “No, I don’t know that.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: On Thursday, after two days of testifying, NBC’s Tim Russert appeared on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams to discuss his role in the trial.
TIM RUSSERT: The central point here is this: Both Mr. Libby and I agree that we talked in July. He called me to complain about some programming on MSNBC, which I had not seen. He then said that I talked to him about Valerie Plame Wilson, her working at the CIA, and that other reporters knew that. I said that is absolutely untrue. I did not know anything about her until I read it in the Robert Novak column several days later.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Tim Russert on the NBC Nightly News. Michael Isikoff joins us now on the phone. He’s an investigative correspondent at Newsweek and co-author of the book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War. The significance, Michael, of Tim Russert’s testimony?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, he’s the cleanup witness and, in many ways, the most damaging to Libby. Patrick Fitzgerald has presented a parade of witnesses who have talked about discussing Joe Wilson’s wife’s work at the CIA with Scooter Libby. And you had — even had Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, describing a lunch he had with Libby, in which Libby told him about Joe Wilson’s wife on the hush-hush. And in each and every stage, the defense has tried to raise questions about the memory of all these witnesses and suggest they might have been confused, they might have forgotten things, they might be misremembering.
And then, after you had the grand jury testimony played to the jury, in which Libby described all of these — couldn’t remember any of these conversations about Joe Wilson’s wife and then does remember with great specificity this conversation with Tim Russert, it really was a grabber to hear the grand jury testimony, in which he forgets talking about all these things with Ari Fleischer and others and then can remember specific aspects of the conversation with Tim Russert. Then Fitzgerald brings Russert in, and he says, “That conversation, as described by Libby, never took place. It couldn’t have taken place. I didn’t know about Joe Wilson’s wife. I couldn’t possibly have told him all the reporters know that.” It was pretty devastating for Libby.
Now, I should say, the defense lawyer, Ted Wells, did do, I thought, a reasonably good job at poking some holes in Russert’s account, bringing out that he had no notes of this conversation, wrote no memos about it, couldn’t remember exactly when it took place. So he could have raised some seeds of doubt in the jury, but all told, Russert, the sense was in the courtroom that Russert was really the clincher in this case.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Michael Isikoff, a criminal trial always looks worse for the defendant when the prosecution rests its case, but now the defense, obviously, will be calling a string of witnesses of its own battery of journalists, including Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Jill Abramson of The New York Times. What’s your sense of what the defense strategy will be?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, it’s hard to say at this point. We do know they are going to be calling these journalists. Now, what these journalists might — what we expect them to say is, “I talked to Scooter Libby during this time, and he never mentioned Joe Wilson’s wife to me.” Well, that’s — you know, that’s something. But one could, you know, just as easily imagine the jurors saying, “Well, it doesn’t tell us anything about what he did say to the other people, such as Judy Miller or Matt Cooper, who say that 'he did talk about the wife with me.'”
The real question that I think everybody is scratching their heads waiting for the defense on is, will they bring the vice president, Cheney, onto the witness stand? Will they bring Karl Rove? Will they bring Dan Bartlett? All of which had been bandied about as potential defense witnesses, but the stakes, where all of these people are currently in the White House, are very high — Cheney, in particular — because if there’s any central revelation from the trial, it’s just how central Vice President Cheney was in trying to rebut the Joe Wilson criticism. It’s Vice President Cheney who first puts the wife into play, who suggests it was a junket in his own handwriting on the Joe Wilson article. Did his wife send him on a junket? It was Vice President Cheney who first told Scooter Libby about Valerie Plame Wilson’s work at the CIA and where she worked in the counter-proliferation division of the directorate of operations. So Cheney would have to cop to that, and whether he wants to do that and then also undergo what’s certainly going to be a vigorous cross-examination from Patrick Fitzgerald, I think, is the central mystery right now in the case.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Isikoff, we were talking to Murray Waas, who had gotten some leaks from the prosecutor’s office. And talking about the outcome here, we watched on Fox as Chris Wallace brought on first Lynne Cheney and then Vice President Cheney after he had been to the Christmas party of the Cheneys, along with Scooter Libby, and each one put out the message, “We think he is, you know, a patriot, a very important man.” And Murray was suggesting that there’s two things here: Either he’ll get convicted — they raised a tremendous amount of money — or I should say, a tremendous amount of money has been raised for his defense — and then, if he were convicted, he would be pardoned, but the whole issue of keeping Scooter Libby in the fold as much as possible, because it could be so damaging for Cheney.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, sure. I mean, look at the Libby defense trust, and it’s made up of wealthy Republican donors who have been big contributors to the president, election campaign pioneers, raised a lot of money for the president. Scooter Libby is very much in the fold, and that’s presumably the reason that Vice President Cheney had offered, at least at the start of this trial, to testify on his behalf and give the kind of testimony you just said: He’s a standup man, he’s a patriot, he was working hard to counter — to keep track of national security threats to the country, and so this whole incident about his wife was relatively trivial. It’s easy to understand how he might forget it. That’s been the defense, as it’s been articulated to date. But whether it will stand up against the kind of testimony that Patrick Fitzgerald has presented is another question.
As for the pardon, that’s what everybody has speculated about from the beginning. And, in fact, I think if the Democrats had not won control of the Congress in the November elections, Scooter Libby might well have been pardoned already, but the president didn’t want to risk a political firestorm that would have undoubtedly ensued in congressional hearings. So, right now, you know, one would expect, if he does get convicted, the play will be, at the end of the day, for Scooter Libby to get pardoned on the president’s last day in office, in the same way that Bill Clinton pardoned a whole bunch of people under investigation in his administration on the last day in office.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what does this trial reveal about the relationship between the major media folks in Washington, the major reporters who cover the federal government, and government itself?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, you know, that’s a very interesting question. During Tim Russert’s testimony, he described why he didn’t originally want to testify about his conversation with Scooter Libby, even though, under his own account, Scooter Libby was simply just calling up to complain about the broadcast of Chris Matthews. He wasn’t calling him up to divulge secret information, hadn’t asked to be spoken off the record. But Tim Russert said he has a policy that all his conversations with senior government officials he considers confidential. He won’t talk about them, because he wants them to feel at ease talking to him. This is how he gathers information. And that is an approach, and it’s an approach that’s very much in the club, a club that might be defined as big media journalists and big government officials schmoozing with each other, having a relationship, social relationships as well as business relationships.
But one could also argue that that sort of attitude — “I’m not going to ever talk about what you tell me” — is not necessarily — you know, sometimes has its pitfalls and the pitfalls is, you too easily accept, you don’t challenge, you don’t do the kind of adversarial investigative journalism that might serve the public interest better. And that said, Tim Russert — nobody can take away from the fact that he does aggressive questioning of everybody on Meet the Press, but I think that that was very revealing, the idea that you would just a priori accept as confidential anything any government official tells you, a senior government official, even if they don’t ask to speak off the record.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Isikoff, on another subject, the Pentagon inspector general releasing his report today, faulting the former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith for including, quote, “reporting of dubious quality or reliability linking Iraq with al-Qaeda.” The significance of this?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, the significance of it is, it’s a sort of formal finding of what a lot of us have reported all along, that — in our book, Hubris, that David Corn and I wrote, we have an extensive account of exactly how Feith’s operation worked and how it did inject this really flimsy intelligence relating to alleged connections between al-Qaeda and Iraq into the intelligence pipe stream. In fact, one of the people who was briefed on it and who was eager to get it was Scooter Libby at the White House, particularly presenting these, what turned out to be, bogus allegations that Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker, had met in Prague with a Iraqi intelligence agent. This was presented by Feith’s office, according to the report and according to our book, as well, as a known contact, when, in fact, it was at that very moment already being vigorously disputed by the CIA and the FBI. But to have the finding that this was inappropriate just further adds to the case that I think has been pretty well documented by now, that the senior administration officials manipulated intelligence and embellished and exaggerated in order to make the case for the invasion of Iraq.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But the IG’s report concludes that it was inappropriate activity, but not necessarily unauthorized or illegal, yet the National Security Act specifically states that government agencies that are involved in intelligence must report to the congressional committees that conduct oversight. This, on the face, appears to be a violation of this National Security Act.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, you get into a game of semantics: What’s intelligence, what’s policy? I talked to Doug Feith last night, actually, extensively about this, and, you know, he makes the case, and I think that what he was really doing was trying to — what his office was really doing was trying to — these were policy discussions, just looking at alternative intelligence assessments.
Actually, what’s interesting in your question, and one of the things that comes out in the report, is that all this was authorized at the very top by both Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who, of course, was the most vociferous on this issue, was the most insistent that there had to be a connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda and that the CIA was missing it. Wolfowitz, as we wrote in Hubris, was very much under the sway of the theories, the conspiracy theories of Laurie Mylroie, who thought that Saddam had to have been behind 9/11 and other terrorist acts, such as the embassy bombings, even though that had been completely discredited by the intelligence and law enforcement communities. So what you had were people who were absolutely insistent on trying to find these connections, because they thought it would strengthen the case for the invasion, and they were determined to push it at every level and had a receptive ear at the White House.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Isikoff, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Of course, now Wolfowitz is president of the World Bank. Michael Isikoff is an investigative reporter with Newsweek, co-author of the book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.