WASHINGTON — Reporter Matt Cooper testified yesterday that he thought I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby had confirmed that a prominent war critic's wife worked at the CIA but acknowledged he never asked the White House aide where he'd heard that.
Cooper, Time magazine's White House reporter at the time, became the second reporter to testify at the CIA leak trial that Libby was a source for their learning that Valerie Plame, wife of ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a CIA operative. Libby claims he only told reporters he had heard that information from other reporters.
Libby, ex-chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is on trial on charges he lied to the FBI and a grand jury about his conversations with reporters about Plame and obstructed the investigation into how her identity leaked to the public in 2003. He is not charged with the actual leak.
Cooper's appearance allowed defense attorney William Jeffress to ask repeatedly about President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, because Cooper identified Rove as the first official to tell him about Plame's job at the CIA. Cooper said Rove told him that Wilson's wife, rather than Cheney, was responsible for sending Wilson to Niger in 2002.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson claimed in print and on television that what he learned on the trip debunked a report that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons. Wilson said Cheney should have learned of his findings long before Bush used the uranium story in his January 2003 State of Union speech as a justification for war with Iraq.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Theodore Wells claimed the White House was trying in 2003 to blame Libby for the leak in order to protect Rove, although Wells did not explain precisely how that related to the perjury charges against Libby.
Cooper recalled a July 12, 2003, telephone conversation in which he asked Libby whether Wilson's wife worked at CIA and was behind the Niger trip.
Cooper testified yesterday that Libby responded, "Yeah, I've heard that, too," or "Yeah, I've heard something like that, too."
Anticipating the defense attack, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald asked whether Libby said where he had heard that.
"Not in any way," Cooper replied.
Did he say he heard it from other reporters?
"No," Cooper said.
Cooper also said he didn't take any notes on that exchange and that he had posed his question to Libby "off the record." Later Cooper said off-the-record information cannot be attributed to the person but can be used to go get the information from others.
Libby attorney Jeffress pounded on Cooper's acknowledgments and also drew the jury's attention to the extensive notes and memos to Time editors that Cooper produced after his talk with Rove.
Jeffress asked Cooper if he ever asked Libby where he'd heard about Wilson's wife.
"I did not," Cooper replied.
His voice dripping with disbelief, Jeffress asked Cooper how he could take his exchange with Libby as confirmation.
"I took it as confirmation," Cooper said.
"Why didn't you put it in your memo to your editors?" Jeffress asked.
"I can't explain that," Cooper replied. "It was late in the day. I didn't write it down, but it is my memory."
"If somebody tells you something off the record, do you take it as confirmation?" Jeffress asked incredulously.
"I did in this case," Cooper replied. "You can use it to go to others and get a more fulsome account" that can be printed.
Earlier yesterday the first journalist to contradict Libby's version, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, acknowledged she could not be "absolutely, absolutely certain" that she first heard about Plame from Libby.
Libby's attorneys seized on the hesitation and tried to portray Miller as someone who selectively remembers some conversations and not others.
Miller is a crucial witness against Libby in his perjury and obstruction trial. She says she had two conversations about Plame in mid-2003 with Libby. Those conversations are at the heart of the trial because they allegedly occurred well before Libby says he learned Plame's identity from another reporter.
Libby's defense strategy revolves around showing jurors that he didn't lie about his conversations with Miller and others, but simply forgot them. If defense attorneys can cast doubt on Miller's memory and her story, it would bolster Libby's case.
During a sometimes heated cross-examination yesterday, defense attorneys pressed Miller to acknowledge that she might have heard about Plame elsewhere. In mid-2003, Miller was investigating allegations by Wilson that the Bush administration ignored certain prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Attorney Jeffress asked Miller to recall the other government officials she spoke to and explain how Wilson's name and phone number got into her notebook prior to the conversation with Libby.
"I don't remember their names. I don't know what you want me to say beyond that," Miller said, adding moments later, "I know I had several conversations but there is no reference to them in my notebook and I have no independent recollection."
Jeffress persisted, showing Miller excerpts from her grand jury testimony in which she said her conversation with Libby was "among the first times" she heard about Plame but couldn't be certain it was the first.
"You're not absolutely certain you first heard that Mr. Wilson's wife worked at the CIA from Mr. Libby?" Jeffress asked.
"I can't be absolutely, absolutely certain, but I have no recollection of an earlier conversation with anyone else," Miller replied.
Jeffress advised the judge the defense wants to call The New York Times' Managing Editor Jill Abramson to rebut Miller. Abramson was Miller's bureau chief in Washington in 2003. Jeffress said he anticipated the newspaper would try to quash a subpoena for her appearance and the defense might need time to fight that battle in court.
Libby's attorneys also said yesterday that they want to know more about another Fitzgerald case involving Miller. Fitzgerald has sought to get Miller's phone records in an investigation into who leaked the details about an investigation into an Islamic charity.
Theodore Wells, another of Libby's attorneys, said he wanted to know more about conversations between Miller and Fitzgerald in that case. If Miller feared prosecution in that case, Wells said, it could motivate her to cooperate in Libby's case and thus cast doubt on her testimony.
Journalism organizations have decried this trial, which could see 10 reporters become witnesses. Jeffress has said that up to seven reporters are on his witness list.