Hiding in Plame Sight: The Blockbuster Story No One Is Reporting from the Libby Trial
Welcome to the media room?
Consider this an open letter to the reporters covering the Lewis "Scooter" Libby perjury/obstruction of justice trial, as well as the rest of the Washington, D.C. media.
I spent Monday through Thursday of last week in your midst in the media room of the E. Barrett Prettyman courthouse, watching the trial as a credentialed blogger (representing Firedoglake, the Huffington Post, and Daily Kos). Contrary to stereotypes of bloggers "hating the media," I saw how hard you all worked, spending eight hours in the courtoom every day and then spending even more time reading exhibits and writing stories. I also saw your diligence, cross-checking facts with one another and firing off nasty looks at anyone who inadvertently interfered with your ability to hear each second of testimony.
But especially in my efforts to live-blog the trial, I also felt the crush of details that can keep journalistic observers from seeing the larger context of the topics being discussed — and, perhaps more importantly, those that are not — as well as the comfortable cocoon of conventional wisdom that can harden into a permanent concrete barrier, preventing initial convictions from ever being questioned or reconsidered.
The ironic result, I think, is that even as you're gathered together absorbing the minutiae of the Libby trial and reporting the day-to-day news as it progresses, all of you are missing a front-page/top-of-the-broadcast story that is just sitting there, waiting for whichever reporter has the initiative to nail it down. So I'm going to outline it for all of you here, in front of all your colleagues, just to see whose competitive juices get stirred up enough to complete the puzzle.
Let's start with something that, if not quite a proven fact, is a clear inference from the trial so far: Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald suspects that Vice President Dick Cheney told Libby to leak Valerie Plame Wilson's employment at the CIA to reporters during a flight aboard Air Force Two on July 12, 2003. In a post on Friday at Firedoglake, I excerpted a searing line of questioning from Libby's second grand jury appearance (in March 2004) in which Fitzgerald stacked up one reason after another why Cheney might have made such a recommendation, faced with an unexpected and unceasing media firestorm over the false intelligence behind the Iraq war.
But maybe that's not news to you — after all, isn't it implicit in Libby's subsequent calls to Matt Cooper and Judith Miller, during which he discussed Plame? Then again, consider this: both Cooper and Miller already had been told that Plame worked for the CIA, Cooper by Karl Rove and Miller by Libby himself. Was all that strategizing aboard Air Force Two merely devoted to telling two people something they already knew?
Now consider Libby's perverse "alibi," in which he falsely confessed to more leaking than he actually engaged in. He claimed to have told Matt Cooper independently about where Joseph Wilson's wife worked, when according to Cooper's testimony all he said was, "I've heard that too," in response to the reporter's query? He also recalled telling the same story to Judy Miller, who never wrote about the leak and whose knowledge of Plame would have remained unknown in a less aggressive investigation, and the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, whom it appears was never leaked to at all. Why?
Libby's motive with regard to Matt Cooper is apparent: his false admission provided a convenient — and presumably intentional — cover for Karl Rove's failure to admit any conversation with Cooper. (If there really was a plan to "sacrifice" Libby to protect Rove, Scooter seems to have been a willing co-conspirator.) And evidence brought out during the trial implies a similar role for the Kessler confession.
Libby had kept and underlined passages in an October 12, 2003 Washington Post article which stated that a WaPo reporter had received a leak about Plame, along with an explanation that the White House considered her husband's trip to Niger (to investigate claims of Iraq seeking uranium) a "boondoggle" set up by her. In a passage from his grand jury testimony that inspired some mirth in the press gallery, Libby demurred from Fitzgerald's repeated hints that he might be the leaker in question, then suddenly said, come to think of it, Kessler had used the term in asking Libby about the trip. (The conversation got more hilariously strained from there.)
Scooter appears to have wanted Fitzgerald to believe that he was indeed the "leaker" described in the article, but that the context was far more innocent than reported. In fact, given that the October 12 Post story reiterated a claim from a previous article that "two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to least six Washington journalists," the multiple (and exaggerated) confessions by Libby seem likely to be an effort to cover for the actual leakers there just as he did with Rove. He wanted his questioners to think, "Oh, that's me, you got your man, even if there was a bit of a misunderstanding. Guess you don't need to look any further."
An enterprising reporter would take this as a challenge to, indeed, go further. For all that has been written about the Plame leak, the many of the events of July 12 are still largely a mystery — one made all the more tantalizing by the visible reluctance of Fitzgerald's prosecution to address them. For instance, the trial testimony of former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer walked up to the edge of discussing a batch of phone calls that he and fellow flack Dan Bartlett were preparing to make to reporters from Air Force One as it flew back from Africa that day… but neither side asked Ari to explain what was said during those calls, and particularly whether Valerie Plame Wilson's job at the CIA was mentioned.
Similarly, judging from the rough play-by-play at Firedoglake, it seems Judith Miller was asked next to nothing about her July 12, 2003 conversations with Libby, save for whether Plame was discussed — no context at all. And Matt Cooper, asked about his allusions to an additional source for the leak he received, stated that he was "trying to answer carefully" as he ascribed them to colleague John Dickerson. If you're a journalist, doesn't all that tiptoeing signal something that should be looked into?
Now consider those calls Fleischer didn't explain — battling a still-rising tide of press criticism, and both knowing about Plame, can there be any doubt that Ari and Dan Bartlett included her CIA connection as part of their overall case against Wilson, just as the 10/12/03 Post article says? If so, wouldn't that obviously constitute "two top White House officials disclos[ing] Plame's identity to least six Washington journalists"? And if Cheney had somehow authorized the calls in that fateful strategy session on Air Force Two, wouldn't Libby be motivated to cover them up?
Although I've expressed this theory since shortly after Libby was indicted, that's neither here nor there at this point. I'm just an amateur blogger playing sleuth, without the sources to nail down my theories as wrong or right. But now, with the evidence from the Libby trial pointing in this direction, where are the mainstream reporters chasing this potential career-making scoop?
Perhaps there's some tacit agreement or herd instinct keeping you from seeing the clues right in front of you. So, now that I'm back home and safely away from any personal backlash (hey, I never said I was brave), I hope you don't mind if I challenge your competitive instincts a little bit after laying down the leads in a venue that all of you are likely reading (or can be tipped off by someone else who is).
How about it, Carol Leonnig and Amy Goldstein? Tired of your stories appearing on pages A3 and A4 of the Washington Post? Clinching the Veep's involvement in outing a CIA agent will get you on the front page. And Neil Lewis, David Stout, and company — you're the freaking New York Times, for crying out loud! How do you want your paper to be remembered in connection with this scandal? For the immolation of Judith Miller's tattered career?
And all the rest of you — what are you waiting for? AP's Matt Apuzzo has to file multiple stories every day, by the law of averages, isn't he likely to hit this angle sooner or later? And Shuster from "Hardball" — you know Shuster's going to be all over this, right? Do you really intend to let them scoop you? (Even worse, do you intend to let some obscure blogger get away with talking smack to you like this as he points out clues you haven't followed?!)
In case you've forgotten, here's the issue again: Besides Libby's chats with Matt Cooper and Judy Miller, what other leaks of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity occurred on July 12 — the one to Walter Pincus, and what else? Did the Vice President of the United States authorize these leaks, and what evidence does special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald have to this effect?
Ladies and gentlemen, start your journalistic engines… and now, go!