Libby trial pulls back White House curtain

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WASHINGTON -- Memo to Tim Russert: Dick Cheney thinks he controls you.

This delicious morsel about the "Meet the Press" host and the vice president was part of the extensive dish that Cathie Martin served up yesterday, when the former Cheney communications director took the stand in the perjury trial of former Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Flashed on the courtroom computer screens were her notes from 2004 about how Mr. Cheney could respond to allegations that the Bush administration had played fast and loose with evidence of Iraq's nuclear ambitions. Option 1: "MTP-VP," she wrote, then listed the pros and cons of a vice presidential appearance on the Sunday NBC television show. Under the "pro" column, she wrote: "control message."

"I suggested we put the vice president on 'Meet the Press,' which was a tactic we often used," Ms. Martin testified. "It's our best format."

It is unclear whether the first week of the trial will help or hurt Mr. Libby or the administration. But the trial has already pulled back the curtain on the White House's PR techniques and confirmed some of the darkest suspicions of the reporters upon whom they are used.

Relatively junior White House aides run roughshod over members of the president's Cabinet. Bush aides charged with speaking to the public and the media are kept out of the loop on some of the most important issues. And bad news is dumped before the weekend for the sole purpose of burying it.

With a candor that is frowned upon at the White House, Ms. Martin explained the use of late-Friday statements. "Fewer people pay attention to it late on Friday," she said. "Fewer people pay attention when it's reported on Saturday."

Ms. Martin --perhaps unaware of the suspicion that such machinations caused in the press corps -- lamented that her statements at the time were not regarded as credible. She testified that, as the controversy swelled in 2004, reporters ignored her denials and continued to report that it was Mr. Cheney's office that sent former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate allegations of Iraq's nuclear acquisitions. "They're not taking my word for it," she recalled telling a colleague.

Ms. Martin, who now works on the president's communications staff, said she was frustrated that reporters wouldn't call for comment as the controversy swelled. She said she had to ask CIA spokesman Bill Harlow which reporters were working on stories about the flap. "Often, reporters would stop calling us," she testified.

This prompted quiet chuckles among the two dozen reporters sitting in court to cover the trial. Whispered one: "When was the last time you called the vice president's office and got anything other than a 'no comment'?"

At length, Ms. Martin explained how she, Mr. Libby and then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley worked late into the night writing a statement to be issued by CIA boss George Tenet in 2004, in which he would take blame for the bogus claim in Mr. Bush's State of the Union address that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Africa.

After "delicate" talks, Mr. Tenet agreed to say the CIA "approved" the claim, and "I am responsible" -- but even that disappointed Ms. Martin, who had wanted Mr. Tenet to say, "We did not express any doubt about Niger."

During her testimony, Ms. Martin, a Harvard Law School graduate married to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and a close friend of Bush counselor Dan Bartlett, seemed uncomfortable, shifting in her chair, squinting at her interrogators, stealing quick glances at the jury and repeatedly touching her cheek, ear, nose, lips and scalp.

Ms. Martin shed light on the mystery of why then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan promised, falsely, that Mr. Libby was not involved in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, the former ambassador's wife. After Mr. McClellan had vouched for Bush strategist Karl Rove's innocence, Mr. Libby asked Ms. Martin, "Why don't they say something about me?"

"You need to talk to Scott," Ms. Martin advised.

On jurors' monitors were images of Ms. Martin's talking points -- some labeled "on the record," and others "deep background." She walked the jurors through how the White House coddles friendly writers and freezes out others. To deal with the Wilson controversy, she hastily arranged a Cheney lunch with conservative commentators. And when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof first wrote about the Niger affair, she explained, "We didn't see any urgency to get to Kristof" because "he frankly attacked the administration fairly regularly."

Under questioning from prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Ms. Martin described how Mr. Hadley tried to keep White House spokesmen ignorant about the Niger controversy.

But Ms. Martin, encouraged by Mr. Libby, secretly advised the vice president and his top aide on how to respond. She put "Meet the Press" at the top of her list of "Options," but noted that it might appear "too defensive." Next, she proposed "leak to Sanger-Pincus-newsmags. Sit down and give to them." This meant that the "no-leak" White House would give the story to The New York Times' David Sanger, The Washington Post's Walter Pincus or to Time or Newsweek. Option 3: "Press conference -- Condi/Rumsfeld." Option 4: "Op-ed."

Ms. Martin was embarrassed about the "leak" option; the case, after all, is about a leak. "It's a term of art," she said. "If you give it to one reporter, they're likelier to write the story."

Still, such efforts frequently came to naught. She described a fruitless effort to track down a reporter from Newsweek one weekend. "You didn't have a lot of hands-on experience dealing with the press?" defense attorney Theodore Wells asked.

"Correct," Ms. Martin replied, adding: "Few of us in the White House had had hands-on experience with any crisis like this."



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