Two major items from the trial on perjury and obstruction charges of I. Lewis Libby, former Chief of Staff for Vice President Cheney, yesterday, as I heard in the courtroom: one was that Libby would not be taking the stand in his own defense, and Cheney would not testify on his behalf, “after all.” The other was that one defense attorney used a substantial chunk of testimony to plug war with Iran.
Predictably, the first item got more media attention. But the second one is more dangerous.
Sitting in on the trial every other day, I have never thought Libby likely to testify in his own defense...
Part of the case against the defendant rests on eight hours of his sworn statement to a grand jury, videotaped and transcribed and shown to the trial jury, in which Libby made some contradictory statements. The videotape also shows Libby repeatedly claiming, several times unprompted, that he was told about Mrs. Joseph Wilson’s employment at the CIA by television personality Tim Russert.
Much of the rest of the case is also based on material from Libby himself – his notes, documents sent to him, etc --- obtained from his files or from his office or from people who worked with him. There are also his sworn statements to FBI investigators. It would be a little odd if the defense added more of Libby’s own words to the mix, in the pressure of the courtroom. Admittedly, for the Libby team to use the “memory defense” or the “busy man defense” – the argument that Libby simply forgot things that he or other people had said in the crush of pressing duties – Libby was supposed to take the stand himself. But the defense seems to me to have inserted that defense pretty well in multiple end runs around the court and the prosecution. (Anything a spectator can see, the jury can as a rule see better, so the tactic may be a wash as regards advantage.)
As to Cheney – well, no one is a mind reader, but in thinking about the trial I’ve noticed that I literally could not imagine Dick Cheney testifying under oath. I mean, literally: I’ve tried to picture Cheney in the witness stand, raising his right hand and then making statements in front of a judge, a jury and a court reporter, under oath, on someone else’s behalf, but I couldn’t do it. I cannot imagine the circumstances under which Cheney would voluntarily speak under oath. He and Bush refused to make sworn statements even to the 9/11 commission.
The unlikeliness of the prospect raises some question as to why there was so much Mainstream Media speculation about it.
The real shock in the courtroom yesterday came when defense witness John Hannah, formerly aide to John Bolton and Cheney’s national security advisor now that Libby has resigned, spent significant time emphasizing threats against U.S. national security purportedly posed by Iran.
In response to questions by defense attorney John Cline, Hannah testified that “from my perspective” Libby had held the equivalent of two full-time jobs, national security advisor and chief of staff to the VP. Hannah also testified, predictably, that Libby had “at time, an awful memory.”
Cline covered areas of concern that Libby would have been dealing with or would have been “consumed” by, in the defense’s words, in Cheney’s office. Those areas of concern were the predictable litany of foreign hot-button issues: Iraq; the size and role of the Iraqi military; “proper composition of the governing entity” in Iraq; “governance issues” in Iraq; security plans in Iraq. [One term not heard: “self-determination.”]
Cline then segued to a lengthy series of questions regarding Iran, asking whether in regard to each of a series of issues on Iran, Libby had held concerns, the answer for all being yes. Issues cited included Iranian support for terrorist groups, inside and outside of Iran; student protests against the government in Iran; considering potential courses of action regarding democracy in Iran; and Iran’s “harboring” al Qaeda contacts. Questioning also elicited that Libby had “assessed the implications of” and considered possible means of “attaining custody of” terrorists held in Iran.
Cline posed a broader question, why was Iran a major area of concern for Libby? Hannah testified, in summary, that Iran was a declared enemy of the U.S.; shared a long border with Iraq; and was generally an acute area of concern for Hannah and Libby. Hannah testified that Libby “devoted considerable time and attention to Iran.”
Further questions went to other parts of the Middle East, including Palestine, eliciting a further series of similar concerns. Typical formulation: “We saw on 9/11 what happened when al Qaeda was allowed safe haven” elsewhere, and we must not allow the same kind of thing to happen on the “American homeland.”
It is difficult for a non-lawyer to understand how boosting Iran as a topic in this trial could be in the defendant’s interest.
Is the administration trying to use the Libby trial to piggyback war with Iran? Or has the White House begun to feel that the defense may be a lost cause, and determined to salvage something from the wreck? (Go, Libby defense fund!) Or is Iran being used to distract attention away from the CIA leak, as it is being used to distract attention away from Iraq? Or all of the above?
Key administration personnel spent years dealing with the fact that the cold war is over, and the U.S. is the world’s one remaining superpower, what we used to call a "David and Goliath" situation and what they call “asymmetric threat.”
I think one way to tackle “asymmetric threat” would be to reduce asymmetry. But that seems to be a thought they don’t want us to have.