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Inside Politics

Libby trial watchers wonder what may have been

Story Highlights

• Vice President Cheney expected to testify during trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby
• Libby's attorneys decided against putting Cheney on the stand
• Couple at heart of story -- Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson -- never appeared at trial
By Kevin Bohn
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It had been the most anticipated moment of the perjury and obstruction of justice trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney -- testimony from a sitting vice president, the first time ever in a criminal trial.

But it never happened.

Cheney himself told CNN's Wolf Blitzer just a few weeks ago: "I'm going to be a witness in that trial within a matter of weeks."

Journalists eagerly awaited firsthand word from the vice president about his role in crafting responses to criticism of the administration from former Ambassador Joe Wilson.

Court watchers also would probably have heard more about the circumstances of Cheney telling Libby around June 11, 2003, that Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife, worked at the CIA -- a conversation Libby later said he forgot about until he found a note referencing it.

There also would have been a lot of questions about the week of July 6, 2003, right after Wilson's op-ed piece was published in The New York Times.

Former vice presidential aide Cathie Martin testified that Cheney dictated talking points to be read to a reporter.

Libby told the grand jury Cheney directed him to go see Times reporter Judith Miller to talk about the intelligence regarding Iraq.

"There is a cloud over what the vice president did that week," Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald said in his closing argument Tuesday.

Prominently displayed during the trial were two exhibits centering on Cheney: a copy of Wilson's op-ed with handwritten questions from Cheney asking, for example, "did his wife send him on a junket?" That was in reference to Wilson's trip to Africa to investigate claims Iraq was trying to acquire uranium there.

Defense attorneys repeatedly showed a note handwritten by the vice president after Libby came to him asking the White House to publicly clear him of charges he had leaked Plame's name.

In that note, Cheney says: "Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy...that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others." Libby was upset, because Karl Rove had already been cleared in a White House press briefing.

While many legal experts predicted Cheney would not testify because the expected strong cross-examination might hurt Libby's case, defense attorney Ted Wells told the court it was not decided until the last moment.

"I had the vice president on hold until the last minute," Wells said last week when announcing the news to the court. Plans for his appearance were already under way. If he did testify, the date was set -- last Thursday. "We were ready to go."

At the center

Two of the most frequently talked about people during the trial were Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, although the jury never saw them or heard from them.

The defense had wanted to call Wilson as a witness, but his attorneys persuaded Judge Reggie Walton to nullify the subpoena because he was not involved in any of the direct activities at the center of the trial.

Wilson's criticisms of the Bush administration, especially his op-ed piece and how officials tried to discredit his statements, however, were a dominant theme of testimony of many of the witnesses, focusing on how the vice president and Libby were determined to counter the allegations.

While the defense tried to persuade the jury the job Plame had was not an important item to Libby, Fitzgerald countered in his closing argument, saying, "she was a fact to use" by White House officials against her husband's credibility.

Cheney's office was told she was responsible for selecting Wilson to go to Africa in 2002 -- a point Cheney and Libby wanted to emphasize with reporters to raise questions about the reliability of Wilson's critique.

During the trial, the jury heard about how different officials leaked Plame's identity and whether they believed she held a covert job, but it did not learn Plame's classification at the CIA.

That was a key issue for prosecutors to weigh when determining if a law was broken when her identity was leaked, because a person had to know she was covert for a person to commit a crime.

The judge repeatedly warned the jury it would not hear any evidence regarding Plame's status at the CIA, saying, "what her actual status was, or whether any damage will result from the disclosure of her status are totally irrelevant to your assessment of the defendant's guilt or innocence."

Plame and Wilson's attorney told CNN they would not comment on the trial. Plame told The Washington Post last month she was following the case but would not talk about her views.

She is working on a book about her experiences and said her family is preparing to move from Washington to New Mexico.

Inside the briefing

One of the more intriguing parts of the trial was the window opened into secret parts of Washington -- how the White House works, the relationships between senior officials and reporters and the intelligence briefings given to senior administration officials.

The morning briefings were a key element of the defense case. Libby served both as the vice president's chief of staff and national security adviser, and lawyers tried to use the amount of information in each briefing to show how much was on Libby's plate.

How much witnesses were able to say publicly and enter into evidence regarding these briefings was the subject of months of closed door hearings and lengthy back and forth between attorneys.

CIA briefer Craig Schmall, who delivered daily briefings to Libby by himself and then later for Libby and Cheney together, testified, for example, the vice president's daily session would usually begin at 7 a.m., usually at his home, although sometimes at the office.

The briefer would have two binders with a series of analytical articles on myriad security issues that were meant for reading by all of the senior officials receiving sessions. Behind a tab would be items of specific interest to the vice president.

Asked if he talked most of the time or let people read, Schmall said: "No, it was mostly reading. The talking I would do would be to tee up or introduce a piece. Here's why it's in the book. Here's why it's important...once the vice president or Mr. Libby started reading, we just let them read."

Because Libby decided not to testify in his own defense, the judge put restrictions on what could be introduced from the briefings. He said only the defendant could describe whether national security topics "consumed" him as the defense wanted to argue. Therefore, the judge only allowed the general topics discussed in the briefings to be introduced.

After that ruling, for an hour one day last week, while the trial was on temporary recess, prosecutors and defense attorneys huddled in the courtroom trying to agree on what could be said publicly about these classified topics.

Instead of CIA briefers taking the stand as had originally been planned, the lawyers on both sides came up with agreeable language that was read to the jury. Defense attorney John Cline ticked off a list of almost 30 topics raised in Libby's briefing June 14, 2003, when the Wilson criticisms were beginning to bubble up.

The subjects ranged from a situation in Yemen defused; information on possible al Qaeda attacks in the United States; a specific vulnerability to a terrorist attack; a proposed Middle East security plan; Iraq's porous borders posing a security threat; violent demonstrations in Iran; a news article on Israel's pressure on Hamas; a message of defiance from Saddam Hussein posted on a Web site; and Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

Separately, there was a terrorist threat list from that day that listed 11 potential attacks.


I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, left, leaves federal court last week in Washington with his attorney, Ted Wells.


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