My Surreal Day at the Libby Trial

I wanted to raise my hand and ask, “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?”

I was at the Scooter Libby trial to cover it, and all of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of the case. In his testimony today, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told the courtroom—which included me—that when I was a White House correspondent for Time magazine, he had told me that Joe Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.

He did?

Everyone had heard about Robert Novak, Matt Cooper, and Judith Miller, the reporters who had received the Valerie Plame leak. But now Ari was saying I was in that club, too.

I have a different memory. My recollection is that during a presidential trip to Africa in July 2003, Ari and another senior administration official had given me only hints. They told me to go inquire about who sent Wilson to Niger. As far as I can remember—and I am pretty sure I would remember it—neither of them ever told me that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. In a piece I wrote about a year ago, I figured that the very reason I’d never been subpoenaed in the case or questioned by any lawyers was that I’d been given only vague guidance and not the good stuff.

So, what to do now that I’d heard Ari’s testimony? Should I stand? Should I shout a question at Ari? Should I walk from the press section into the witness box? Call a press conference? Get a lawyer?

Then, my picture was displayed on the big screen in the courtroom. The defense attorneys had put it up there to identify (and, apparently, punish) me. “I believe that’s Mr. Dickerson in the second row from the back of the courtroom,” said someone. Mr. Dickerson didn’t know who said it, because Mr. Dickerson was trying to make sense of a world suddenly turned upside down. (They used the publicity photo from my book. I like it on the book jacket, but blown up at such size, it transforms me into a guy who looks like his great ambition in life is to be a wristwatch model.)

So, why was Ari testifying about something that I don’t think ever happened? I don’t know. Ari asked for immunity from prosecution based on the idea that he’d told me and David Gregory of NBC that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA, so Ari clearly believes he spilled the beans. But my memory is just the opposite. Could I have forgotten that Ari told me? I don’t think so. Here’s how I remember it:

I had talked to Ari on July 11 and remember him telling me to investigate who sent Wilson. When I landed in Nigeria late that night, I found a few e-mails from Cooper. He was trying to get me to call him and wouldn’t tell me why. I was a little irritated. I hadn’t eaten, didn’t trust the Nigerian food, and was filing to the Web site and closing three stories, including a long piece for the European edition that would run on the cover in Africa. But then, when I talked to Cooper, I learned why he wanted to get me on the phone. He had talked to Karl Rove, and Rove had told him about Wilson’s wife. (Cooper would talk to Libby the next day.) When I realized that, a light bulb went off in my head. I realized that was what Ari had been trying to point me toward in our earlier conversation. It made perfect sense: It immediately undermined Wilson’s report by making his errand look at best like nepotism and at worst like busy work from a CIA spouse who needed to find errands for her househusband. If Ari had told me that Wilson’s wife had sent him, Matt’s news wouldn’t have been new to me.

I was not so tired that I lacked a competitive pang: Matt and I were working on the same story, and he had gotten the better dirt. If Ari had told me about the wife, I certainly would have quickly pointed out to Matt that he was only telling me something I already knew. (This is, after all, is my heritage. I grew up in Washington, where no one admits they don’t know something.)

So, how to explain Ari’s testimony? I’ve covered him for 12 years, since I reported on tax policy and he was a spokesman for the Ways and Means committee, and he’s never lied to me. Shaded, wiggled, and driven me around the bend with his spin, yes. (I wasn’t a fan of his book, either.) But he never outright lied, and I don’t see how it would be in his interest here. More likely, he admitted to prosecutors more than he may have actually done because better to err on the side of assuming he disclosed too much than assuming he gave over too little.

How does Ari’s testimony affect the perjury and obstruction of justice case against Libby? It certainly complicates it. For starters, when this piece appears, it may get me out of my press seat and into that uncomfortable little witness box. It hurts the prosecution if Ari admitted something he didn’t do, because they’re relying on his memory. Libby is on trial for saying he didn’t know about Wilson’s wife and that he learned it from NBC’s Tim Russert. Fleischer contradicts that. He claims that Libby told him about Wilson’s wife at a lunch in early July, long before Libby ever talked to Russert. If they can poke holes in Ari’s recollection of what he told me, they can raise doubts about what Ari remembers Scooter telling him.

But this isn’t universally good news for the defense. Russert says he couldn’t have told Libby about Wilson’s wife, because he didn’t know she worked for the CIA. The defense contends that Gregory might have told Russert about Plame following his conversation with Ari. But if Ari didn’t tell Gregory and me about Plame, then Gregory couldn’t have passed the information on to Russert.

Only moments before Ari’s surprise disclosure, I had been trying to figure out what my lede would be for today. I enjoyed seeing Ari have to answer questions under oath, which he never had to do in the White House briefing room. As a reporter, I’d always tried to put him in the witness box, and he always climbed out. Now he may have put me in there.