Matt Cooper’s Unmagical Notes

My former Time colleague Matt Cooper took the stand Wednesday and faced what no journalist wants to—a display of his notes and e-mails on a big TV screen. It’s not just journalists who don’t want this: I’m sure Scooter Libby doesn’t like seeing his notes up there either. But for us, who obsess about crafting our final product, it’s never pretty to look at the scraps we put into making it. So, while Cooper was mostly calm and measured, it was excruciating to watch him talk through the notes he took while talking on the phone with Scooter Libby on July 12, 2003.

Cooper contends that he asked Libby if he knew Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA, and that Libby answered, “Yeah I’ve heard that, too,” or words to that effect. Nowhere in his notes though, is there a reference to that exchange.

The defense spent a great deal of time making Cooper go through the notes, deciphering the typos and explaining his style. Lawyer William Jeffress seized on a single sentence and started a line of inquiry that led to a moment that was part Perry Mason revelation, part Doug Henning magical illusion. The passage as it appeared in Cooper’s typewritten notes read: “had somethine and abou the Wilson thing and not sure if it’s ever.” Jeffress suggested this referred to Libby’s answer to the question about Wilson’s wife. Could Cooper really have meant to type: “heard something about the Wilson thing and not sure if it’s even true”? That wasn’t Cooper’s recollection. So, Jeffress took him through notes he’d taken about other conversations and pointed out instances in which he’d dropped letters, so it was possible had could mean heard; he’d substituted an “r” when he meant to type an “n,” which would turn ever into even. (The excitement was building!) What about the “and” in Cooper’s original sentence? Jeffress showed that Cooper often inserted the word “and” where it didn’t belong, almost like a note-taking tick. It all seemed very promising and clever. And then Jeffress tried to turn the blank space in Cooper’s notes into the word “true.” (Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the rabbit!) That’s not evidence. It’s magic.

The defense team also suggested that Cooper had learned about Wilson’s wife not just from administration officials but from me. This isn’t the case, and Cooper didn’t say otherwise. But whenever Libby’s lawyers tried to get more specific about my role, Fitzgerald objected. (I can’t figure out why exactly.) The judge circumscribed the defense’s inquiry into what I had told Cooper. (If you’re sick of me talking about me [and who isn’t?], buy Hubris for another account.) In the end, Cooper said that I had relayed information to him on the phone from Africa, as I had. That information showed up in an exhibit Wednesday—a July 11, 2003, e-mail written by Cooper that included the line “Dickerson reports dissing of Wilson at his end.” That is, almost verbatim, a line from a file I sent from Africa a few hours after talking to Cooper: “On background WH officials were dissing Wilson. They suggested he was sent on his mission by a low level person at the agency.”

Jeffress was obsessed with the dissing idea, asking Cooper repeatedly if Libby had dissed Wilson in their phone conversation. (Later, we blessedly avoided such scrutiny of a reference to a “pissing match” in a file Cooper wrote.) Round and round Jeffress and Cooper went, trying to define the verb “to diss” and then arguing if it applied to Libby’s remarks about Wilson. Libby’s lawyer seemed to be trying to distance what he’d said from the “dissing” I’d reported.

The defense had a point. In their July 12 phone call, Libby was offering Cooper a counterpoint to Wilson’s report about Iraq’s efforts to acquire uranium. Libby was trying to substantively argue against Wilson. If Libby had wanted to undermine Wilson further, he would have brought up Plame and her CIA status, as he allegedly did to Miller. Instead Cooper, not Libby, brought up Wilson’s wife. Talking to me in Africa the day before, on the other hand, the administration was more aggressive, though on a slightly different tack. The two Bush officials I talked to said Wilson had been sent by a “low-level” person at the CIA, suggesting that Wilson’s trip and he were unsanctioned and unserious. (This, to me, was “dissing.”) Later that day, CIA Director George Tenet took a shot at Wilson’s competence in his statement taking responsibility for the famous botched 16 words in president Bush’s 2005 State of the Union Address.

After the defense team’s cross examination, prosecutor Fitzgerald tried to bring Cooper back to the key question at issue, which was whether Libby told Cooper what Libby claimed he told him in his grand jury testimony. Before the grand jury, Libby said he told Cooper that he didn’t know if Wilson had a wife or where she worked and that anything he knew he’d learned from other reporters. Cooper didn’t have any of that in his notes. Today he said he didn’t remember Libby saying any of it.

It was fitting that Cooper’s testimony followed Judith Miller’s turn in the witness box. The two fought Fitzgerald’s efforts to subpoena them together, invoking their First Amendment rights. At one point they shared a lawyer. They both lost, but there may be more constitutional fights. Defense lawyers announced that they are going to call Miller’s former colleague, New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson. They expect her to resist appearing. They want Abramson to testify about whether in 2003 she blew off Miller’s suggestion that the paper write about Joe Wilson, as Miller claims. Calling Abramson is presumably an effort to further impeach Miller. Her reputation has already taken a pretty good pounding. She continued to say “I don’t remember” so often today you thought she might sing it once, for variety.