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The Libby-Cheney Bummer

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 14, 2007; 11:40 AM

Yesterday was a profound bummer.

Having decided to take a first-hand look at the Scooter Libby trial, I got down the to federal courthouse yesterday afternoon just in time to hear the defense announce that it was basically done.

There would be no testimony from Libby. No testimony from Vice President Cheney.

For me, the real cliffhanger of the Libby trial has never been whether or not he would be found guilty -- it was whether or not he and his boss would finally face some questions they couldn't duck.

Questions that would cut to the very heart of the Bush presidency. Questions about the twisting of intelligence, the manipulation of secrecy, the vindictiveness toward critics, and the control of the media.

Neither Libby nor Cheney have made themselves widely available to the press -- and when they have, reporters have usually let them set their own ground rules and pursue their own agendas. Certainly, Cheney made sure he was always in control of the message. (i.e. "Meet the Press.")

As long as journalists fear appearing too prosecutorial with people like Libby or Cheney -- or President Bush -- they'll never get them to go beyond their talking points.

So some of us journalists had high hopes for the prosecutor.

In the end, however, the Libby defense team obviously realized that putting their star witnesses in a position where their every assertion would be aggressively and expertly challenged -- rather than just accepted and broadcast -- would hurt them more than it could possibly help.

Smart move for them. Bummer for a public craving a better understanding of what went so terribly wrong.

Press Conference

The White House abruptly announced early this morning that Bush is holding a press conference today at 11 a.m. ET. I'm filing my column before that -- but will be Live Online at 1 p.m, and we can talk about it then.

Scooter Libby Watch

And all of a sudden, it's almost over.

Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Attorneys for I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby said yesterday that he and Vice President Cheney, his former boss, will not testify in Libby's perjury trial, leaving the defense preparing to rest its case today after barely more than two days of testimony.

"The defense's announcement in court, partway through the fifth week of the celebrated trial of the vice president's former chief of staff, represented an abrupt shift from the witness strategy that Libby's lawyers laid out in hearings and court papers during the months leading up to the trial.

"The defense's central theory is that Libby suffered from a notoriously bad memory and misspoke to investigators about his role in the Bush administration's disclosure of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. The decision to foreshorten the case means that jurors will hear little testimony and see scant evidence to back that contention. Yesterday, John Hannah, a former deputy to Libby for national security matters, provided the sole support for the idea, testifying that 'on certain things, Scooter just had an awful memory.'

"The decision also means that the defense will not call any witnesses to explicitly buttress a dramatic assertion by lawyer Theodore V. Wells Jr. in his opening statement to the jury: that Libby was scapegoated by his White House colleagues when the leak investigation began."

Neil A. Lewis and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "One likely factor in that calculation is that putting Mr. Libby on the stand would expose him to a cross-examination by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the chief prosecutor, that could be withering."

Lewis and Shane write about Hannah's testimony: "In Mr. Hannah's account, Mr. Libby had barely time to draw an extra breath, starting with an early morning C. I. A. briefing 'that covers the waterfront of the world.' . . .

"Although Mr. Hannah testified for the defense for nearly two hours, the prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald, seemed to cut down much of the significance of his testimony in five minutes of cross-examination. Noting that Mr. Hannah had testified that he could usually have a few minutes alone with Mr. Libby only in the evening after the crush of business, Mr. Fitzgerald suggested that Mr. Libby would have devoted time only to matters of great concern to him in the week of July 6, 2003.

"'If he gave something an hour or two that week, it would be something Mr. Libby thought was important, right?' asked Mr. Fitzgerald.

"'Well, with regard to me, yes,' Mr. Hannah replied.

"Left unsaid in the exchange was undisputed testimony that Mr. Libby spent nearly two hours on Tuesday, July 8, with [Judith] Miller, then a Times reporter. Ms. Miller has testified that Mr. Libby told her in detail about Ms. Wilson at the meeting. Mr. Libby acknowledged meeting Ms. Miller to counter Mr. Wilson's accusations, but said he did not discuss Ms. Wilson."

Michael Calderone of the New York Observer describes the brief testimony from New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson. Miller previously testified that she wanted to pursue a story about Libby's efforts to leak Plame's identity, but that Abramson had turned her down. But under defense questioning, Abramson said she had no recollection of such a conversation.

Calderone writes: "Debra Bonamici took over for the prosecution and asked a question that provoked a few chuckles in the press section. At the time in question, he said, had Ms. Abramson 'tune[d] out' the reporter?

"'It's possible that I occasionally tuned her out,' Ms. Abramson replied."

Also -- and this part I witnessed myself -- after the jury had gone home early on account of the snow, defense lawyers played for the judge three video clips of NBC News Washington bureau chief and star prosecution witness Tim Russert that they want shown to the jury to impeach Russert's credibility.

During a long cross-examination, Russert had professed ignorance of the fact that one advantage prosecutors were offering him, when they let him give a deposition rather than go before the grand jury, was that he could be accompanied by counsel. Russert insisted that he had no idea that lawyers could not accompany witnesses into the grand jury room -- which they aren't.

The defense team yesterday found video clips of Russert in 1998, in which he very authoritatively stated that witnesses are not allowed to bring lawyers into the grand jury room. The prosecution objected, saying it was an irrelevant point and that Russert's statements were from nine years ago and that he might well have been reading something that someone else prepared for him.

When the judge said he certainly wouldn't let the new evidence be introduced unless Russert were given a chance to confront it, the defense team asked that Russert be recalled. So he might be coming back.

Here's an Associated Press summary of the testimony in the trial.

David Corn writes in The Nation: "The trial will end with a whimper, not a bang."

But the closing arguments, now set for Tuesday, could still offer up a little fire. As Corn puts it: "Fitzgerald will sum up his narrow case: Libby told investigators he knew nothing certain or official about Wilson's wife at the time of the leak and only shared scuttlebutt with reporters, but the testimony of three journalists and five past and present government officials disputes that."

The defense team, by contrast, "will attack the credibility and memory of each prosecution witness and toss out evidence-free speculation about what was really happening behind the scenes regarding the CIA leak--all to confuse, or raise a reasonable doubt. [Defense attorney Ted] Wells also has suggested he might argue that Russert--contrary to Russert's testimony--did know about Wilson's wife and might have indeed shared this tidbit with Libby."

John Podhoretz writes in his New York Post opinion column: "Can Libby prevail? It's easy to see how a few jurors at least might decide that they've just been subjected to a nonsense case that should be thrown into the garbage. But all 12 jurors siding with Libby? That's a little like trying to fill an inside straight.

"As a fellow Libby watcher put it to me yesterday, 'A hung jury is what he's probably hoping for.'

"At which point, the question will be: Will prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald fold up his tent or is he going to devote more time and resources trying to destroy my friend Scooter Libby's life by putting him on trial a second time?"

Bush Light

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "While the House of Representatives debated weighty matters of war and peace yesterday, President Bush headed to the YMCA.

"In a brightly lighted basement gym, he visited children bending paperclips into different shapes and urged Americans to volunteer as mentors. He talked not of armies in Iraq but of 'armies of compassion' at home. Even the kids seemed confused. One asked why he came. 'I came to see you,' the president responded. As the cameras clicked away, a 7-year-old boy made peace signs. 'Put your hands down,' Bush chided playfully.

[Here's an Associated Press photo of Bush surrounded by little peaceniks.]

"That was the most extensive case made yesterday by the commander in chief against the growing antiwar sentiment gripping Congress and the nation. . . .

"In recent weeks, he has participated in events focused on childhood obesity and national parks. He hosted photo opportunities with last year's Stanley Cup and NASCAR champions. And this week, he is meeting with three foreign heads of state -- the presidents of Lithuania, Liberia and Panama -- representing a combined population smaller than that of Michigan."

Here are Bush's remarks on volunteerism at the White House yesterday, and at the YMCA.

Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News related this scene to his colleagues: "The following exchange was overheard by another pooler, between younger boys at the first table, as the president schmoozed elsewhere. . . .

"1st kid: 'He's my favorite president.' (referring to Bush)

"2d kid: 'My favorite president is President Obama.'

"1st kid: 'Who's that?'

"2d kid: 'He's the first black president.'"

The Iranian Allegations

Farah Stockman and Thanassis Cambanis write in the Boston Globe: "Security analysts and critics of the Bush administration are questioning the quality of intelligence presented by three unidentified US officials in Baghdad on Sunday to demonstrate the Iranian government's ties to sophisticated explosives that have killed 170 US soldiers in Iraq."

The White House press corps yesterday aggressively questioned press secretary Tony Snow about the refusal of some senior military leaders -- most notably Peter Pace, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff -- to stand behind that claim of Iranian government involvement, which the White House has endorsed.

Here's the highly readable transcript of yesterday's briefing.

Snow was particularly unforthcoming, contentious and condescending -- at one point even telling CNN reporter Ed Henry to "calm down" when Henry persisted in trying to get Snow to address the central issue.

Some excerpts from the briefing:

"Q [T]he briefers over the weekend said that these parts are sent to Iraq with the approval of senior Iranian officials. And the bottom line is he seems to be contradicting that.

"MR. SNOW: Well, I think what General Pace may have been saying -- in fact, I know what he's saying -- and this is where we get to the rhetorical question I was asking you before -- do we have a signed piece of paper from Mr. Khomeini or from President Ahmadinejad signing off on this? No. But are the Quds forces part of the government? The answer is yes.

"So the question is, I think this ends up being a semantic dispute about senior levels of the government or the government. And the fact is, the government knows about it.

"Q Okay. But isn't it really a question about whether or not you have strong evidence? When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff seem to be saying something different than the White House, does that raise questions about how solid this evidence is?

"MR. SNOW: No, because you've got -- you have explosively formed penetrators. He says they exist, correct?

"Q I didn't see that in this particular quote, but --

"MR. SNOW: Well, no -- he said that there are weapons --

"Q He says that there are projectiles manufactured in Iraq.

"MR. SNOW: Okay, all right. So, okay, so there's no doubt about that, correct? There are Iranians in Iraq. There's no question about that, correct?

"Q Sure.

"MR. SNOW: All right, so where's the credibility problem, in terms of -- are you saying --

"Q In terms of the Iranian government being behind it. That's not -- nobody's disputing whether it's manufactured in Iran. That's what -- you keep changing what my question is.

"MR. SNOW: No, no, I'm trying to clarify your question, because I think this is a --

"Q I don't need it clarified, I'm trying to tell you -- I know what my question is, and basically, he's saying that he doesn't see evidence that the Iranian government is clearly behind it. That's my -- I've asked that three or four times. You haven't answered that. You're saying the Iranian government is behind it.

"MR. SNOW: Okay, let me put it this way -- I'll say it one more time. The Quds force is part of the Iranian government. The Quds force is behind it, is associated with it."

The North Korean Agreement

Glenn Kessler and Edward Cody write in The Washington Post: "The six-nation deal to shut down North Korea's nuclear facility, four months after Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test, was reached yesterday largely because President Bush was willing to give U.S. negotiators new flexibility to reach an agreement, U.S. officials and Asian diplomats said yesterday.

"Ever since the North Korean nuclear crisis erupted in 2002 after the discovery of a clandestine nuclear program, the Bush administration has insisted that North Korea should not be rewarded for its bad behavior -- and many of the U.S. offers have required Pyongyang to give up a lot before it could receive anything in return.

"Now Bush has signed off on a deal that accepts North Korea's original position -- a 'freeze' of its Yongbyon nuclear facility -- and requires Washington to move first by unfreezing some North Korean bank accounts. The agreement leaves until later dealing with such vexing issues as the dismantlement of the facility, North Korea's stash of weapons-grade plutonium and even North Korea's admission of the nuclear program that started the crisis in the first place.

"As a result, the agreement came under attack yesterday, with conservatives labeling it a betrayal and Democrats charging that Bush allowed North Korea to become a nuclear-weapon state without gaining much improvement over a Clinton-era deal that collapsed during Bush's first term."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "For Mr. Bush, bogged down in Iraq, his authority undercut by the November elections, any chance to show progress in peacefully disarming a country that detonated a nuclear test just four months ago could no longer be passed up. As one senior administration official said over the weekend, the prospect that Mr. Bush might leave Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea more dangerous places than he found them 'can't be very appealing.' . . .

"For years, Mr. Bush's administration has been paralyzed by an ideological war, between those who wanted to bring down North Korea and those who thought it was worth one more try to lure the country out of isolation. In embracing this deal, Mr. Bush sided with those who have counseled engagement, notably his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and her chief negotiator, Christopher R. Hill. Mr. Bush took the leap in the hope that in a few months, he will be able to declare that North Korea can no longer produce fuel for new nuclear weapons, even if it has not yet turned over its old ones. . . .

"Mr. Bush could . . . end up with a diplomatic triumph, one he needs desperately. To get there, he appears to have changed course. Asked in 2004 about North Korea, he said, 'I don't think you give timelines to dictators and tyrants.'

"Now he appears to have concluded that sometimes the United States has to negotiate with dictators and odious rulers, because the other options -- military force, sanctions or watching an unpredictable nation gain a nuclear arsenal -- seem even worse."

Helene Cooper and Jim Yardley write in the New York Times: "From the right, hardliners argued that the United States should have held out until North Korea agreed to fully declare and dismantle its entire nuclear program.

"From the left, Democrats argued that the deal was no better than one they said the United States could have gotten four years ago, before North Korea tested a nuclear bomb. . . .

"Still, the deal represented a bureaucratic victory for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has pushed for a more diplomatic approach with North Korea than more hawkish administration officials would have liked. In the end, it was Ms. Rice who convinced President Bush to sign onto the pact, administration officials said.

"'These talks represent the best opportunity to use diplomacy to address North Korea's nuclear programs,' President Bush said in a statement Tuesday morning. 'They reflect the common commitment of the participants to a Korean Peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons.'"

Janine Zacharia writes for Bloomberg: "The accord struck by the U.S. and its partners to limit and eventually dismantle North Korea's nuclear program resembles one signed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, a deal President George W. Bush denounced. . . .

"According to Andrei Lankov, an historian at Seoul's Kookmin University who specializes in North Korea, the agreement isn't necessarily faulty but its timing is. 'The Americans have been refusing to sign anything like this for years, but changed their minds as soon as North Korea tested the nuclear device,' he said via email.

"'If this is not a surrender to blackmailers, I do not know what is. In the future when the North Koreans need more aid, they will know how to get it: do something as provocative as they can.'"

Who's Up? Who's Down?

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers that the deal "reflects a changed power balance within the Bush administration, with Rice at the forefront and Vice President Dick Cheney's influence diminished, at least on this issue and for now."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "More than anything else he has done in his second term, George W. Bush's embrace of a fuel-for-nukes accord with North Korea shows that he is adjusting to the harsh realities of diplomacy -- and straying ever further from the ideology of regime change. The proof: the president has cut a deal that is likely to help a member of his notorious 'Axis of Evil,' Kim Jong Il, stay in power longer, even while it may make the world safer. . . .

"Until this week the administration refused to reward 'bad behavior' -- secret weapons programs -- by promising dictators like Kim goodies in return for giving up nukes. 'There's a little bit of tripping over earlier rhetoric,' says Michael Green, the senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in Bush's first term. . . .

"Former senior administration members say the North Korea deal is evidence of two big changes: one, several key hardliners have left, and the influence of others, including Cheney, is waning; and two, that Bush is now consumed with Iraq, Iran and the Middle East. 'It was so clearly against the approach we had tried to impose,' says a former top Bush nonproliferation official. 'Why now? I can think couple of reasons. One is that he is completely overwhelmed with the Middle East and desperate for a political victory anywhere.'"

North Korea Editorials

The Washington Post: "If the shutdown takes place, North Korean production of plutonium for nuclear weapons will also stop -- a welcome if very limited step forward."

The Los Angeles Times: "The very tentative one-page agreement struck in Beijing on Tuesday is only a shaky first step after years of paralysis."

The New York Times: "The obvious question to ask is: What took so long? And even more important: Will President Bush learn from this belated success? Will he finally allow his diplomats to try negotiation and even compromise with other bad and undeniably dangerous governments? . . .

"There will be a lot of talk in Washington about Mr. Bush salvaging a failing presidency. We don't want to take away from the glow. But there are a lot of other dangers out there. And we hope that Mr. Bush learns the most basic lesson of this week's deal: sometimes you really do have to talk to your enemies, even if you have to grit your teeth."

Trade Gap Watch

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "The United States ran a record trade deficit in 2006 for the fifth consecutive year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday in an announcement that quickly reignited the dispute between the Bush administration and Democrats over the value of past and future deals lowering trade barriers."

At Long Last, a Meeting

Ron Harris writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "After spurning requests by the Congressional Black Caucus for months, President George W. Bush will meet Thursday with members for the first time in more than two years.

"Led by caucus chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., they plan to discuss changes they would like to see in the president's budget, expediting aid for Hurricane Katrina victims and their opposition to Bush's handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The meeting reflects the newfound clout of the 43-member caucus, all Democrats."

Won't You Be Mine?

Barneycam returns today with My Barney Valentine. But, to be honest, Barney looks about as thrilled with the whole project as his human is about, oh, the House debate.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the North Korean agreement; David Horsey wallows in irony; Stuart Carlson on Bush's budget choices; John Sherffius depicts the "Bush/Cheney warometer".

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