WASHINGTON -- Former White House official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a grand jury in 2004 that Vice President Dick Cheney was upset by an ambassador's public questioning of the Iraq war and that President Bush, Cheney and Libby were involved in a plan - kept secret from other senior White House officials - to leak previously classified intelligence to reporters to counter the criticism.
Libby's audiotaped testimony, played for jurors in federal court, offered new details about the way the White House orchestrated a campaign to discredit the Iraq war critic, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. The identity of Wilson's wife, undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, was subsequently exposed in the news media, triggering a criminal investigation.
Jurors heard Libby on tape describing how he was instructed to leak intelligence secrets to selected reporters while other White House officials were expressing concern over the leaks and debating whether the administration should formally declassify intelligence reports on Iraq to combat criticism of the case for war.
At one point, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald can be heard on the tapes expressing disbelief that Libby would take part in those meetings without disclosing that the president had effectively declassified key portions of one of the main prewar pieces of intelligence on Iraq, a national intelligence estimate of Iraq's alleged banned-weapons programs.
"Was that unusual for you to have the national security adviser, the director of central intelligence, the White House chief of staff among others in the dark as to something that you had done regarding declassification?" Fitzgerald asked.
"It is not unusual for the vice president to tell me something which I am not allowed to share with others," Libby replied.
Libby's remarks were heard during a day in court that was devoted entirely to playing audiotapes of the former Cheney aide's grand jury testimony, allowing jurors to listen to the defendant make statements that prosecutors have labeled lies.
Libby is charged with five felony counts of perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice for what he told investigators about his role in the campaign to discredit Wilson.
Libby can be heard describing in a low voice how Cheney was "upset" when Wilson went public with allegations that the White House had twisted intelligence to make the case for war.
In an op-ed article, Wilson said he had been sent to investigate a key claim - that Iraq was seeking uranium from the African nation of Niger - and found it untrue months before President Bush included the allegation in his 2003 State of the Union speech.
"It was a serious accusation," Libby said. "It was a very serious attack." It also quickly became a "topic that was discussed on a daily basis" in the White House.
Libby said Cheney "thought we should get some of these facts out to the press. He then undertook to get permission from the president to talk about this" to reporters.
Libby said Cheney's lawyer, David Addington, had advised him that merely getting such permission from the president rendered the intelligence declassified. President Bush has publicly acknowledged doing so.
Libby's subsequent conversations with reporters and other White House officials are at the center of the perjury trial. Prosecutors have produced witnesses over the past week, including former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who have testified that they learned of Plame's identity from Libby.
Libby has testified that he learned about Plame from Cheney in June 2003 but then forgot that detail and didn't share it with others until he heard it from NBC News reporter Tim Russert in a phone call July 10 or 11.
Recounting that conversation, Libby said in taped testimony that Russert asked him, "'Did you know that Ambassador Wilson's wife works at the CIA?' and I was a little taken aback by that. ... And I said 'No I don't know that' intentionally because I didn't want him to take anything I was saying as in any way confirming what he had said."
Russert, who is expected to testify this week, has said that he did not tell Libby about Plame.
Libby's testimony also puts him at odds with other former White House officials.
Prosecutors are expected to play remaining portions of Libby's taped testimony today.
Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.