It was the last thing the White House needed at a time when President Bush is already on the defensive over Iraq: a circular firing squad in a federal courtroom in which the president’s men—and Vice President Dick Cheney’s—are all shooting at each other.
But that’s how the perjury trial of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff, began. Libby’s long-awaited defense was laid out for the first time Tuesday in opening statements and it turned out to be a stunner: a “scorched earth” strategy in which his main defense lawyer pointed accusatory fingers at White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove as well as other top current and former Bush aides.
Almost no legal experts had expected this plan of attack in the trial, the outcome of a drawn-out investigation into who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative, to the media. According to chief prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the leak occured amid an effort by Bush administration officials to discredit Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had publicly cast doubt on the administration’s case for war against Iraq.
The FBI began an investigation after newspaper columnist Robert Novak exposed Plame’s identity in 2003. Libby is accused of obstructing the probe and lying to investigators. Neither of the two men later identified as the sources for Novak’s column, Rove or former deputy secretary of State Richard Armitage, was charged in the case.