• U.S.

What Scooter Libby And I Talked About

5 minute read
Matthew Cooper/Washington

I was wet, smelling of chlorine. It was July 12, 2003, in Washington, a beautiful summer day, and I had just come back from swimming. All morning I had been trying to reach I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby for a cover story about both President George W. Bush’s claim that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s controversial Op-Ed. I had been invited to a fancy Washington country club by friends. Since the club didn’t allow the use of cell phones, I kept running from pool to parking lot to try to reach Libby, who was traveling to Norfolk, Va., with Vice President Dick Cheney for the commissioning of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan. Eventually I raced home without showering in order to take Libby’s call. When he finally reached me at around 3 p.m., we spoke for a few minutes as I sprawled on my bed. I had no idea that that brief phone call, along with a conversation with Karl Rove the day before, would leave me embroiled in a federal investigation for more than two years and that Libby would end up facing a five-count indictment. I doubt it occurred to Libby either. That afternoon, we talked a bit on background and off the record, and he gave me an on-the-record quote distancing Cheney from Wilson’s fact-finding trip to Africa for the CIA. In fact, he was so eager to distance his boss from Wilson that a few days later, he called to rebuke me for not having used the whole quote in the piece. We updated the online version of the story, and I went on to co-author a piece for TIME.com called “A War on Wilson?,” which would attract the attention of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

Almost a year passed between those pieces and my legal woes. In May 2004 I was subpoenaed by Fitzgerald, who was interested in my conversation with Libby. Since part of our conversation was on background, I, along with Time Inc.–which would be formally subpoenaed a few months later because the company controlled my computer-written notes and e-mails–fought the order to protect the principle of source confidentiality. We lost, and in early August 2004 we were both facing contempt. For Time Inc., part of the global behemoth Time Warner, that meant a fine; for me, jail.

On Aug. 5, 2004, the night before Time Inc. and I were scheduled to be sentenced, I called Libby to see if he would grant a waiver for my testifying. The lawyers representing Time Inc. and me, who supported my making that call, thought Libby might well do so. After all, he had granted a waiver to a Washington Post reporter, and Tim Russert of NBC had just avoided contempt by testifying about his end of his conversation with Libby. Most important, my exchange with Libby about Wilson had been short and, in my thinking and Time Inc.’s, not especially provocative. When I reached Libby to ask for the waiver I told him, “I’ve been called before the grand jury, and I think they’re going to ask me about a conversation we had about a year ago. Most of it was on the record, but part of it wasn’t, and I wanted to see if I could get your permission to talk about the part that wasn’t on the record.” I told him that I would tell the truth about our conversation. Libby told me that he used to be a lawyer and that “to be safe” our attorneys should talk and if it was O.K. with them, it was O.K. with him. So the following week my attorney, Floyd Abrams, spoke with Libby’s lawyer, Joseph Tate, and they hammered out the details of the waiver. On Aug. 23, I had a tuna sandwich and gave a deposition in Abrams’ Washington office about the conversation. The Wilson part that really interested Fitzgerald was tiny, as I told TIME readers. Basically, I asked Libby if he had heard anything about Wilson’s wife having been involved in sending him to Niger. Libby responded with words to the effect of, “Yeah, I’ve heard that too.”

The contempt citation was lifted against me that day, and I breathed easy. As it turned out, a week later, Fitzgerald came back and insisted he wanted to know what another source had told me, and the struggle began all over again, with my refusing to name the source and Time Inc. fighting the case all the way to the Supreme Court–which in June upheld the lower court’s demand that the company turn over my notes and that I testify. Until now, that is the part of my involvement in the Plame affair that has drawn the biggest headlines: Time Inc. did turn over my notes, over my objections, and my other source–Rove–did grant me a waiver to testify (see “What I Told the Grand Jury,” July 25, 2005).

I was surprised last week that the Libby indictment even mentioned me. But apparently his recollection of the conversation differed from mine in a way that led the prosecutor to think he was lying. As for me, I still have no idea if Libby or anyone else has committed a crime. I only know that if there is a Libby trial, I’ll testify truthfully and completely, as I did before the grand jury.

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