The start of jury selection in the CIA leak case provided a potentially crucial victory for I. Lewis Libby's defense lawyers. They were allowed to ask potential jurors in detail about their opinions of the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney, a group of high-profile reporters and whether the administration had lied to push the country into war with Iraq.
The defense faces a key challenge in picking a jury for this highly political case in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 9-to-1. Cheney is expected to be a defense witness.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald objected repeatedly, but to no avail, that Libby's lawyers were going beyond the more general opinion questions that U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton asked the entire jury pool when the proceedings began Tuesday morning.
Fitzgerald complained that defense attorneys Theodore Wells and William Jeffress were turning jury selection into "an open-ended Rorschach (ink-blot) test into how you feel about the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney" the Iraq war and various reporters. "They're trying the case" in jury selection, he argued.
But Walton ruled the defense lawyers have a right to know if "somebody has a very negative attitude to the Bush administration."
Libby, who served as an adviser to President Bush and chief of staff to Cheney, is accused of lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters regarding the public disclosure of CIA officer Valerie Plame's name. Her identity was leaked to reporters in 2003 after her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of trying to push the nation into war by knowingly repeating a false story about Iraq trying to obtain uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons.
The biggest defense success Tuesday came during extended questioning of a young financial analyst who had read about the case and said he didn't have the highest opinion of Cheney and "if I had to rank people as to credibility, I wouldn't put him at the top of the list."
Wells, Fitzgerald and Walton each repeatedly tried to see if he could put those views aside in weighing trial evidence, but finally the financial analyst acknowledged Cheney would have a strike against him in a credibility dispute with other witnesses. So Walton excused him for cause.
By comparison, one young woman swiftly sealed her own disposition by announcing right off the bat that she was "completely without objectivity" and "there is nothing they (Bush administration officials) could say or do that would make me think anything positive about them."
Libby broke into a half smile and shot a glance at his wife in the first row of spectators as Walton sent the woman home.
Fitzgerald was able to stave off Wells' bid to bounce a young house cleaner whose clients include those who live in the posh Watergate apartment building. At one point, she said Libby would have to prove his innocence, but Fitzgerald argued and Walton agreed that she was merely confused and ultimately affirmed that he is presumed innocent. He told Wells to use a peremptory, or unexplained, strike later to send her home.
Six jurors were qualified to serve on Tuesday. Once that number reaches 37, the judge will allow lawyers to exercise their preemptory strikes. The defense has 12 such challenges and prosecutors eight. Walton intends to seat 12 jurors and four alternates.
Walton said the trial should last four to six weeks.
Wells told Walton the case will begin with and concentrate on Wilson's criticisms of how the Bush administration justified the war. Wilson argued the leak of his wife's name was designed to punish him and silence other administration critics in the intelligence agencies.
During the ensuing political flap, Fitzgerald called top administration figures and prominent reporters before a grand jury to find the leak. But the only criminal case he has brought is this one against Libby for lying to investigators. Libby says he didn't lie but the burden of more important business clouded his memory of conversations with reporters.