WASHINGTON -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, was made a scapegoat by the White House to protect the president's longtime political adviser Karl Rove, Libby's lawyer asserted in his opening statement in Libby's trial yesterday, foreshadowing an unexpected defense based on a split with the administration.
The statement by Theodore V. Wells Jr. was the first indication that Libby, who is facing five felony counts of lying to investigators, would seek to deflect some of the blame onto his former White House colleagues, though he never clearly explained the connection between the alleged attempt to protect Rove and the actions that led to his indictment. It was also the first sign that there had been any infighting by the Bush administration over the leak investigation.
Until yesterday, Libby's defense on perjury and obstruction of justice charges was that he might simply have remembered incorrectly the events he described to a grand jury and to FBI agents. But Wells told the jury in his opening remarks that unidentified White House officials wanted to protect Rove because they believed his survival as President Bush's chief political adviser was crucial to the health of the Republican Party.
Wells said that his client was innocent and that a decision was made that "Scooter Libby was to be sacrificed."
It was important to keep Rove out of trouble, Wells said, because he was Bush's right-hand man and "was most responsible for seeing the Republican Party stayed in office. He had to be protected."
Rove, who has not been charged, has acknowledged having been one of the sources for a July 14 column by Robert Novak that first disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA officer and led to the investigation resulting in Libby's indictment.
Wells' remarks followed the opening statement of the chief prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who told the jury that the evidence was clear that Libby knowingly lied under oath about his conversations with three reporters about Plame. Fitzgerald provided his own dramatic moment of the day when he played audiotapes of Libby's grand jury testimony in March 2004.
But before doing so, he meticulously laid the groundwork for his case that Libby had lied during those appearances. He first presented charts showing that Libby learned about Plame in conversations with several fellow administration officials in June and early July 2003, and that he also talked to reporters and other administration officials about her identity in that same time period.
Plame's identity was disclosed just days after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, wrote a commentary in The New York Times asserting that the Bush administration, to build the case for war, had distorted intelligence about Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium in Africa.
Libby had testified that he did not discuss Plame's identity with Judith Miller, a former reporter for The New York Times, and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine. They have both testified that he had, in fact, discussed Plame with them.
In the trial's opening day, Fitzgerald's task was to keep the issue before the jury simple and streamlined: Were Libby's statements true about his conversations with reporters? To that end, he spoke for only about an hour in outlining his case.
The mission of Wells, in contrast, was to present the case as hopelessly complicated, thus leaving the jurors in doubt about the validity of the charges. Wells spoke for nearly 2 1/2 hours, ranging over issues of the reliability of memory, Libby's duties - which during the relevant period included crises in Liberia and Turkey - and threats from al-Qaida on the days that Libby spoke to reporters.
But his most startling comment was his assertion that Libby became enmeshed in legal difficulty because of White House efforts to protect Rove.
If Libby and his lawyers press their strategy of blaming the White House, it could prove risky - possibly jeopardizing any chances of a presidential pardon for Libby if he is convicted.
Libby, Wells said, complained to Vice President Dick Cheney that he was being set up as the fall guy. Cheney supported that view, Wells said, and wrote a note saying: "Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy who was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."
This incident appears to have occurred in the fall of 2003, when Libby was troubled that Scott McClellan, then the White House press secretary, had publicly said Rove was not involved in the leak but had initially declined to do the same for Libby and others in the administration. At that time, Rove had a key role in guiding Bush's re-election campaign.
Interpreting the vice president's note, Wells said that "incompetence" was a reference to how the CIA had mistakenly allowed the White House to use inaccurate information in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech about Iraq's efforts to obtain uranium in Africa.