Libby Trial: No Swans Swimming In Sewers
Is it really the intent of the Libby legal team to reintroduce the entire argument over the Bush Administration's flawed case for war in Iraq? Especially after we just completed the tedious slog through jury selection, with the endless string of questions about the potential jurors feelings about Vice President Cheney and the mess that is Iraq?
Because if that truly is their intent — to bring up the Niger document forgeries, as they did with the Government's witnesses Marc Grossman and Robert Grenier this morning; to bring up the war of words between the CIA and the White House/Vice President's office on who would take the blame for the mess that is Iraq; to bring up an endless string of innuendos that the CIA was out to make Scooter Libby into their fall guy? I'm sorry, but I do not see this jury buying that failure to accept responsibility. It's just a feeling from watching the jurors and the reactions of the folks in the gallery watching the trial…among which, there was a sense of confusion as to what, exactly, defense counsel was trying to get at today, other than to point out that people do, inherently, have memory questions over time.
But that is getting way ahead of the day's testimony, so on to the summary.
We started the morning with the continuation of testimony from Marc Grossman, former number three man at the State Department. To be honest, I am not enamored with Ted Wells' cross examination style — he's scattered, very extemporaneous, and overly exuberant, so that his personality overshadows the answers he is trying to elicit with his questions. When the lawyer becomes the story instead of the case, that is a problem, in my mind, and having watched a number of the other attorneys on Team Libby and from the government, I can honestly say that, stylistically, Wells' courtroom demeanor — the sort of forceful, boistrous lawyering — just is not my favorite.
One of the things we did the most today was sit in the courtroom and watch the attorneys haggle through objections and motions with the judge at the bench. It was a very slow, very long haul through the end of Grossman's testimony this morning — and the government was forced to make a number of objections on hearsay and relevance and questions outside the scope of direct examination because Wells continued to try and push the Adminstration's case for war around the edges in his questioning, including Wells' attempt to get Grossman to testify with regard to Valerie Plame Wilson's status at the CIA, despite the judge's prior order that the issue was to be off the table for this trial.
It was a long morning.
One substantial hurdle that Team Libby appears to be setting up in its own path is the gap between the two sides of their argument: it is illogical to say that Libby was (a) so busy with national security threats and other very important matters that he could not possibly have cared about Joe and Valerie Wilson enough to pay attention to them and, at the same time, say that (b) he was forced to do damage control on the matter of Wilson's questions of the Administration's, and particularly Cheney's, credibility by forcing them to confront the question of whether they had lied their way into war with Iraq, because it was a priority of the Vice President's and, thus, a priority of Libby's. Either it wasn't important or it was — but you cannot reconcile the two at one time, especially given that today's testimony elicited the following facts from the witnesses:
— From Marc Grossman: That Scooter Libby contacted him to ask about Joe Wilson, the trip to Niger and who was responsible for it. And that Libby was concerned that Grossman find this information out for him as expeditiously as possible. Grossman has some mitigating factors — he knew Joe Wilson from their tenure in the State Department, and Wells tried to intimate that his strong ties to Richard Armitage tainted him somewhat in terms of testimony aganst Libby, but I felt that Wells' attempt at impeachment with this information fell short, because Grossman clearly thought of Armitage's disclosure as wrong and yet appreciated being given a personal heads up about Armitage's conversation with Novak.
— From Robert Grenier: Grenier was a Deputy Director at the CIA during this time frame, working under John McLaughlin. He knew Libby through the Deputies Committee meetings at the White House, which he would attend when the subject was Iraq. On June 11, 2003, Libby phoned Grenier for the first time over the two years that they had known each other in this capacity and tasked Grenier into researching Joe Wilson and his potential role in the Niger trip — and whether the CIA had sent him due to interest being expressed by the Vice President's office. Grenier said that Libby's tone during this call was "aggrieved," and that he mentioned that Wilson had spoken with the press — which led Grenier to deduce that Libby wanted more information on the trip and on Wilson to deal with the inevitable pushback that would need to be done with press inquiries that led to uncomfortable questions. Grenier made some calls within the CIA to the Directorate of Operations Counterproliferation Division to "Kevin," but was unable to reach his contact there. He tasked someone else with researching the issue, and within a couple of hours had an answer. He attempted to reach Libby around 4:00 pm, but was unable to get him, and then left his office for a 4:15 pm meeting with George Tenet. During the meeting, he was pulled out by a staffer — the first time anyone had ever requested that he be pulled from a meeting with Tenet — to take a call from Libby who asked if Grenier had secured the background information on Wilson. When Grenier filled Libby in on the details he had learned, Libby asked if the CIA would be willing to go to the press with the information that it was not simple the Vice President's office, but also the Department of Defense and the State Department who had been seeking information about Iraq's alleged attempts to purchase uranium in Niger. Grenier then went back to the meeting, pulled out the CIA's press officer, and asked him if this would be possible and the two of them phoned Libby to say that there would be a way that this could be done — Grenier immediately put the press officer (Harlow) on the phone, where he spoke with a "Cathie" (presumably Cathie Martin, Vice President Cheney's then press secretary, who is expected to testify tomorrow) about how best to disseminate the story.
Grenier was cross-examined by William Jeffress, whose demeanor reminds me quite a bit of William H. Macy, and whose courtroom style is very open and friendly, so that you do not see the sting coming until after it has already hit. Unfortunately for Jeffress, he didn't quite land the stings that he was clearly hoping for at times. Essentially, the point that Jeffress was trying to make in his cross examination was that Grenier and others at the CIA had reason to fudge information to cast blame on folks at the Vice President's office and, in particular, Libby. But Jeffress failed to adequately make that point stick to Grenier — and his frequent interruptions when Grenier was speaking (although a common technique for cutting off a witness' answer that you don't want the jury to hear on cross) was off-putting.
— From Craig Schmall: Schmall was the CIA briefer who was responsible for briefing Scooter Libby, first, and later both Libby and Cheney, for the daily morning briefings from the Agency. Schmall was the most intriguing witness of the day today, and very credible, as both the jury and the folks in the gallery paid fairly close attention to what he had to say throughout the afternoon. Schmall put together briefing books, which included a summary page on which Schmall annotated questions, tasking assignments and other notes regarding issues that either Libby or the Vice President wanted addressed or answered during the course of the briefing. One of the funnier moments today came when we discovered that Scooter Libby, during the midst of these myriad of terrorist threats and other national security matters which were being briefed, met with Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz regarding the treatment of Church of Scientology members in Germany. (Yeah, busy and important schedule matter, that.)
Fitzgerald did the direct examination of Schmall this morning and I thought it was brilliantly constructed — he managed to elicit tidbits that were very damaging to Libby's credibility and which directly challenged the "I was too busy and important to remember" defense, from a witness who was not hostile to Libby in the slightest and who came across as the sort of person who earnestly wanted to do a good job. Some of the information obtained included:
— Margin notes on the briefing slip for 6/14/03 (a Saturday briefing of Libby at his home): Libby complained about a story in the press about CIA analysts feeling bullied about his and VP Cheney's visits to the CIA;
— Margin notes on the briefing slip for 6/14/03: Libby asked "Why was the Ex. Amb. told this and was this a VP office question? Joe Wilson Valerie Wilson"
— Margin notes on the 7/14/03 briefing (a Monday, so it would have been with VP Cheney and with Libby potentially as well): "Did you read the Novak article — not your problem…"
All of this was very interesting, especially the timing of the questions asked about Wilson back on June 14, 2003. There is a bit of a puzzle about the "not your problem" portion of the 7/14/03 notation — does this mean that the briefer did not need to look further into the matter? And did this come from Vice President Cheney or from Libby?
Cross examination of Schmall was begun by John Cline for Libby's defense team, and he did a very methodical walk through of the matters that may have been briefed on June 14th, 2003, to show that Libby was a very busy and very important man. I also thought that Cline's courtroom style was very effective, and that he was both prepared and quite straightforward in his lines of questioning. Unfortunately, again, for Team Libby the types of questions asked walks them right back to the twin points of their defense argument which are not easily reconciled and may, in the end, come crashing into each other: if you are a busy and important man, why were you, Scooter Libby, running around the national security and diplomatic arena asking questions about a matter that you now say was trivial — asking multiple people multiple questions over an extended period of time? It just does not add up to any logical conclusion.
Fnally, a word about witnesses. Neither the government nor the defense gets to select its witnesses out of central casting. As is so often the case in any criminal matter, people involved on all sides of the case come to the witness stand carrying their own sets of baggage — that is true for the defendant, and for every witness on both sides who will be placed under oath. In criminal matters especially, you find that there is an awful lot of taint to a number of the people who testify — as a former colleague of mine in the prosecutor's office used to say, "You don't find swans swimming in sewers."
In the Libby matter, there is already a growing sense of the level of infighting, nastiness, egotism, and backbiting that is going on within the Bush Administration and between the various segments of our national security apparatus, the highest levels of the executive and among the diplomatic and military wings. To be completely honest, it is a wonder that these people have managed to cobble together anything that functions at all and — frankly — looking at the mess that is Iraq and our burgeoning deficit, an argument can be made that it is not even functioning in any real sense of the word.
This case, and the testimony elicited therein, is lifting up an awful lot of uncomfortable rocks. And what we are all seeing squirming underneath them is not pleasant for anyone in the courtroom. And it is only going to get worse the further down the road of testimony that we go. Tomorrow, we will finish the testimony of Craig Schmall and move on to Cathie Martin, whose testimony will be key in so many ways. Much more to come from the Libby trial.