- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified yesterday he first heard that a prominent war critic’s wife worked at the CIA from vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. He said he thought the information might help deflect critical questions from reporters.

Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Libby told him about Valerie Plame’s job at the CIA over a lunch in the White House Mess dining rooms on July 7, 2003. Mr. Libby has told investigators he thought he first learned about Mrs. Plame on July 10 from NBC reporter Tim Russert.

Four other government witnesses also have said they discussed Mrs. Plame with Mr. Libby before July 10, and the discrepancy between those accounts and what Mr. Libby told the FBI and a grand jury are a major component of the perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

Mr. Libby now says his memory failed him when he spoke to Mr. Russert.

The appearance of Mr. Fleischer, President Bush’s chief spokesman from 2001 through mid-2003, slightly swelled the crowd of trial onlookers, including veteran reporters eager to see a White House press secretary questioned under oath.

Acknowledging that he fielded many hostile questions at the White House, Mr. Fleischer proved to be a calm and unflappable witness, even under cross-examination by defense attorney William Jeffress. He often turned to speak directly to the jurors, sometimes using hand gestures.

Mr. Fleischer testified under an immunity agreement with prosecutors. He said he sought the deal after reading about the investigation and worrying, “Oh my God. Did I somehow play a role in outing a CIA operative?” He insisted he believed throughout that the information was not classified.

Mr. Fleischer said his lunch with Mr. Libby was their first and had been scheduled by Mr. Libby in anticipation of Mr. Fleischer’s imminent departure. After talk of career plans and the Miami Dolphins, the subject shifted to the controversy raging over criticism by Mrs. Plame’s husband, ex-ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, of President Bush’s State of Union address in January 2003.

Mr. Bush had said Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons, and that had become part of the justification for war with Iraq.

Since then, Mr. Wilson had said in print and on television that he was sent to Niger to investigate the report in 2002 and found no evidence. Mr. Wilson said questions by Mr. Cheney motivated his trip and that Mr. Cheney should have received his report months before Mr. Bush’s speech.

Previous testimony showed Mr. Cheney’s office was working to get word out that Mr. Cheney didn’t send Mr. Wilson to Niger and had never heard of him, his trip or his conclusions until press reports in spring 2003.

Mr. Libby said Mr. Wilson was sent to Niger by his wife, and she worked at the CIA in the counter-proliferation division, Mr. Fleischer testified.

“I believe he mentioned her name and said something like, ‘This is hush-hush, this on the QT, not very many people know this.’ ”

“My sense is that Mr. Libby was telling me this was kinda newsy,” Mr. Fleischer added. He did not think the information was classified, however, because whenever he was told or given classified information “people would always say, ‘This is classified. You cannot use it.’ ”

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