WASHINGTON -- Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's defense in his perjury trial relies on his contention that he was made a scapegoat to protect White House political strategist Karl Rove from charges of leaking the name of a CIA officer.
But that claim was dealt a blow yesterday when jurors were shown videotapes from 2003 of Scott McClellan, then-spokesman for the White House, telling reporters that Libby was not the source of the leak.
"There's no evidence of an effort to throw him under the bus," prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald told U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, arguing -- in the absence of the jury -- that the tapes should be played.
Libby is accused of lying to investigators probing whether government officials illegally disclosed the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame in the summer of 2003, soon after her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, accused the Bush administration of twisting pre-war intelligence in Iraq.
His lawyers have told the jury that Libby, then-chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, feared he was being made a scapegoat to shield Rove, one of President Bush's most trusted advisers, from legal problems.
But that argument, Fitzgerald told Walton yesterday, was undercut by the fact that McClellan told reporters Libby wasn't involved in the leak. Over the objections of Libby's lawyers, Walton allowed the government to play brief excerpts of the tapes.
McClellan ardently defended the White House during a series of briefings in early October 2003. At the time, the Justice Department was beginning a criminal probe into the leak, and questions were swirling about the possible involvement of administration insiders. McClellan initially told reporters that Rove had engaged in no misconduct, but the spokesman declined to be drawn into a discussion of the possible role of others.
Libby, his lawyers have said, saw that initial reluctance as a sign that unnamed officials were conspiring to have him take the fall so Rove would emerge unscathed. Libby complained to Cheney, the lawyers have said, and a few days later McClellan changed his message, exonerating Libby and a third White House official as well as Rove.
"I spoke with those individuals, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this," McClellan told reporters on Oct. 10. When asked what "this" was, he replied: "The leaking of classified information."
Yesterday, Walton questioned defense lawyer Theodore Wells about the scapegoat theory, asking how, given the videos, "you make out a case that somehow the White House was putting his head on a platter."
Fitzgerald has alleged that Libby was involved in helping craft McClellan's language. But he noted that the statement publicly clearing Libby also put him in a private bind: Libby was concerned that he had leaked classified information about Plame, so he set out to construct a story that would insulate him from being charged with that crime, Fitzgerald said.
During his first interview with the FBI, which came four days after McClellan's last mention of the leak, Libby told investigators that he had discussed Plame with journalists and others, but he said that he was only passing on information he had heard from reporters, including Tim Russert of NBC News.
In fact, the government has alleged that Libby heard about Plame from a number of official sources -- initially from Cheney, as well as from officials of the CIA and the State Department. In contrast with passing along tips from reporters, passing along tips about Plame from official sources could be a crime.
"He has got to tell a story consistent with what the White House has told the world," Fitzgerald said yesterday. "He is locked in with his feet planted in cement. The cleanest way to take himself off the hook is to say, 'I heard it from reporters, that I did not know it was true.'"
Wells has said that Libby did not lie and that any misstatements to investigators were the product of memory lapses and the stress of his involvement in national security issues.
After playing snippets of the videotapes for the jury, Fitzgerald called an FBI agent, Deborah Bond, to the stand to recount details of two interviews Libby gave investigators.
According to Bond, Libby acknowledged that Cheney had told him that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA in a phone conversation around June 12, 2003, but added that he had forgotten the conversation by the time he talked with journalists about Plame a few weeks later.
Bond testified Libby also said that he and Cheney might have discussed telling reporters that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA but that he could not be sure.
The trial is adjourned until Monday. The government is expected to call Russert before resting its case early next week.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.