WASHINGTON — The trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, now at a pause point as the defense prepares to mount its case, is about many things.
Literally, the trial is about whether Vice President Cheney's ex-chief of staff committed perjury and obstruction of justice during a federal investigation into the exposure of a CIA agent's identity. After 11 days of prosecution testimony, some of which appeared damaging to Mr. Libby, the task of the defense team is to sow reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.
But what has captured the fascination of the press and observers of the Bush administration is how this case has pulled back the curtain on the inner workings of a White House known for being secretive and on the ways of elite Washington – much of it less than flattering. And even if the perjury trial of a former aide may seem to be a sideshow to the weightier issues of the day, the context of the Libby trial remains central: the runup to the Iraq war and its aftermath when the rationale for the war came under question.
"This trial stands for something much bigger than what it is," says Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University. "In the public mind, it stands for, 'Was Bush lying about the war, and was he willing to destroy a woman's career to cover up a lie about the war?' Viewed that way, it's a big case. The case doesn't actually go that far, but that's how it will be read if Libby is convicted."
No one, including Libby, is on trial for revealing the identity of Valerie Plame, the woman in question, as a CIA operative. Her status became a point of interest inside the Bush administration when her husband, former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson, came out as a critic of the administration's use of intelligence in building its case for war. At issue in Libby's case is whether he lied in sworn testimony over how he learned Ms. Plame's identity.
The prosecution's final witness, Tim Russert, anchor of NBC's "Meet the Press," provided perhaps the most damaging testimony. Libby had asserted that he learned Plame's identity from Mr. Russert, but Russert denies that the topic ever came up in a phone conversation they had in July 2003. In cross-examination, Libby's chief defense lawyer tried to challenge Russert's memory and impugn his impartiality.
When the defense begins its case Monday, the first witnesses will be other journalists, who will be questioned with an eye toward casting doubt on the ability of prosecution witnesses to remember years-old conversations accurately.
At the heart of Libby's defense is the argument that, as a top White House aide with a full plate, he could not be expected to remember who told him what, when. After Libby stated under oath that he had learned Plame's identity from Russert, it has subsequently come out that he learned the information a month earlier from fellow officials.
The prosecution's argument is that Libby had fingered Russert to avoid implicating administration colleagues. Why Russert would then have not contradicted him is the next question. Perhaps, the reasoning goes, Libby assumed Russert would refuse to testify, in the tradition of journalists refusing to divulge in public the identity of sources and content of conversations with them.
During the days of testimony so far, the public has been treated to a rare behind-the-scenes look at life in the White House. Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary during the period in question and who received legal immunity for his testimony, described his dismay when it became clear that the president had made an unsupported statement in his State of the Union address: that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium from Africa.
Cathie Martin, a former press aide to Mr. Cheney, also expressed frustration over her office's inability to correct a falsehood in the press – that it was Cheney's office that had sent Ambassador Wilson on a mission to Africa to check on the uranium allegation. And in an ironic moment, she laid out the options her office considered in trying to refute that allegation – including the possibility of leaking the information to select journalists.
Perhaps the most startling sign of backroom intrigue at the White House came in the opening arguments of the defense: that Libby was being hung out to dry to protect a more-prominent (read: valuable) White House figure, Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove.
How all this looks to the American people, a majority of whom already hold the Bush White House in low esteem, is an open question. But to some longtime observers of the ways of Washington, there's a danger that the public will come away with new disgust over how the press interacts with the White House, especially in the realm of "leaks."
"It must look sleazy and underhanded," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar. "It's hard but necessary to also tell them [the public] that an awful lot of important information gets conveyed this way."