WASHINGTON -- The perjury and obstruction trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby turned into an examination of the credibility of the Bush administration yesterday, with lawyers for the former White House aide asking potential jurors how they feel about the war in Iraq and whether present and former administration officials who might be called to testify could be believed.
Libby is charged with lying to investigators about conversations he had with journalists about a CIA operative who is married to a critic of the administration's war policies.
Libby's lawyers signaled yesterday that even though the case is about perjury, they are concerned that strong feelings among the jurors about the war - and whether President Bush misled the public about it - could influence their verdict.
Two potential jurors were dismissed after expressing strongly negative feelings about administration officials.
The questioning about the Bush administration and the Iraq war drew repeated objections from prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who said that the defense lawyers were engaged in "an open-ended Rorschach test," referring to the famous ink-blot test in which people are believed to project their feelings onto ambiguous stimuli.
But U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said the defense had a right to fully explore whether any of the jurors was biased.
In court papers filed yesterday, Libby's lawyers argued that the questioning was needed because of an unusual amount of pre-trial publicity in the case, which had in some cases been "inaccurate and inflammatory" and "unduly prejudicial."
They mentioned a news conference that Fitzgerald had given after Libby was indicted, among other examples.
The judge dismissed a financial analyst who said he would have problems believing Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby's former boss, who is expected to testify on behalf of his former aide. A young woman was dismissed after she acknowledged she was "completely without objectivity" about the Bush administration and could not find "anything positive" to say about it.
As part of the pre-trial scrutiny, Walton read the names of 80 prominent figures who he said are likely to be mentioned at the trial or called as witnesses, to see if any was familiar to the jurors.
Besides Cheney, the list included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former CIA Director George J. Tenet, and a raft of journalists including Washington Post editor and reporter Bob Woodward.
Rice was Bush's national security adviser when Libby worked for Cheney. If she were to emerge as a witness for the government, it could provide an additional glimpse into the inner workings of the administration.
A State Department spokeswoman said she had no information about whether Rice would testify and referred calls to the Justice Department.
A spokesman for Fitzgerald declined to elaborate.
Accused of lying
Libby was indicted after a three-year investigation by Fitzgerald that began when the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame was mentioned in a July 14, 2003, column by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. Plame is married to former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had accused the Bush administration of twisting pre-war intelligence in a New York Times op-ed piece eight days earlier.
While it is a felony to publicize the name of a covert agent, Fitzgerald did not charge anyone with that crime.
Libby, the only person charged in the investigation, was accused of misleading investigators by suggesting he had heard about Plame from reporters, when according to Fitzgerald, Libby was giving reporters that information.
Jury selection is expected to last several days; the trial is expected to last six weeks. Opening statements are set for early next week.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.