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Libby Trial on Perjury, Obstruction Charges Set to Start

January 16, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying about how he learned and who he talked to about the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity to the press in 2003.

Jury selection for his trial began today. And before a verdict is reached, the vice president himself is likely to testify. Carol Leonnig was in the courtroom today for the Washington Post, and she joins us now.

Welcome, Carol.

CAROL LEONNIG, The Washington Post: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So, Carol, what is it the prosecution is seeking to prove here?

CAROL LEONNIG: The prosecution is seeking to prove here that Scooter Libby, on behalf of Cheney, allegedly, sought to discredit a critic of the war and lied later when asked about it about his conversations with reporters that provided information about this critic’s wife, who was a secret CIA operative named Valerie Plame.

Libby's defense

GWEN IFILL: And as far as we've been able to see so far in court filings, what is Scooter Libby's defense?

CAROL LEONNIG: Well, I have to say that, today, the opening of the trial didn't showcase so much the defense. I can tell you it quickly. The defense is, "I forgot. I was very involved in national security matters that were much more serious, much more crushing. And when the FBI came to me in this leak investigation, trying to figure out how Valerie Plame's name appeared in a column by Bob Novak, I, Scooter Libby, just couldn't remember and misspoke."

"Later on, I remembered that I had learned this information, not from Tim Russert at NBC, but I learned it from my boss, Vice President Cheney, and that I had shared it with other reporters."

GWEN IFILL: Just to remind people, because it's been a while, this case is not about the actual leak, about who leaked this name, right?

CAROL LEONNIG: Excellent point. And critics of this investigation have said over and over again, if there wasn't a leak, why are we charging a crime of perjury and lying about a non-existent leak?

And what the special counsel has argued is, if you lie in the course of an investigation about conversations you had about secret information that may or may not have been classified, that he can't prove whether or not you were a leaker with criminal intent, but what he can prove is that you lied to him.

Selecting the jury

GWEN IFILL: So jury selection begins today. And basically the prosecutors have and the defense have to choose from a jury of people who live in the District of Columbia who might not, according to polls anyway, seem to be terribly sympathetic to this administration. Did that come up in the jury selection?

CAROL LEONNIG: In fact, it was the central issue that came up today. Rather slowly, the defense and also the prosecution, with a lot of help from Judge Walton, who is the presiding judge here, questioned jurors.

In the course of almost a full day, a shortened day, but almost a full court day, they were only able to interview nine jurors. And of those, three were dismissed, two for expressing very harsh and negative opinions about the Bush administration.

There was one panel member, a woman in her 30s, who was in career professional ware. And she said emphatically, "I have absolutely no objectivity about the Bush administration," when asked a question about that. And she was summarily dismissed. She said she couldn't think of anything positive about the administration.

GWEN IFILL: So that is one hurdle. And the other hurdle, this has been a very public case. A lot of people might know about it.

CAROL LEONNIG: Yes, another good point. And the defense is using that in some motions they made this morning in which they've said on behalf of their client, Mr. Libby, that there's been a lot of inflammatory coverage of the case. It's been all over the cable news channels.

It's been on the front pages of the Post, the Times, et cetera, and that there's little chance that Libby could have a fair trial, because exposure means you're indicted, you're charged, you're walking into the courthouse every day on television cameras, you must be guilty.

That's what they fear, is the view of D.C. residents who might be chosen as jurors. So far, though, when interviewed, the prospective jurors said they'd seen the news coverage but they weren't entirely sure what Libby was charged with, and so they hadn't formed an opinion, they said.

Cheney to testify?

GWEN IFILL: But one thing we're expecting in this case, which would be quite precedent-setting, is the vice president himself could be called to testify. Any sense what the timing is going to be on that?

CAROL LEONNIG: No firm dates at this point, but it seems as though it would not be at the very start of the case, when the prosecution is going to be bringing forth its witnesses. But many sources are now indicating that he will likely testify in court, in person, and that he believes very strongly that this was an honorable public servant who's been caught up in an unfair hunt for a leak of which he is not -- of which he is not guilty.

GWEN IFILL: In court, in person, not by videotape?

CAROL LEONNIG: That's what we're hearing.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Carol Leonnig from the Washington Post, thank you for covering this trial for us.

CAROL LEONNIG: Thank you, Gwen.