The perjury trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, began explosively on Tuesday as his lawyers argued he was the victim of CIA incompetence and that the White House wanted to scapegoat him in order to protect Karl Rove, the strategist seen as key to keeping the Republican party in office.
Both legal teams used audio and visual props in their opening statements to the jury on how the name of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame, was leaked to the press. Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, played tapes of Mr Libby's soft-spoken testimony before the grand jury and charged that he had "knowingly and intentionally lied".
Ted Wells, Mr Libby's lawyer, trumped that by showing on a giant television screen the fragment of a memo written by Mr Cheney after a meeting with his former aide. It offers a voyeuristic insight into his pugnacious, combative character: "Sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck into the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."
Mr Wells explained that Mr Libby had gone to Mr Cheney after the special prosecutor began his investigation in late 2003 to express concern that he was being made the fall guy to protect Mr Rove, the president's chief political adviser. "Rove was the person most responsible for keeping the Republican party in office. His fate was important to be protected. The person who was to be sacrificed was Scooter Libby," Mr Wells said.
The opening statements offered a glimpse of the drama that will play out over the next six weeks, with a sitting vice-president expected to testify for the first time, the credibility of some of Washington's most high-profile reporters likely to be tested and internal tensions within the administration over Iraq confirmed in cross-examination of witnesses from across the government.
In contrast to Mr Wells, who spoke with some vehemence, Mr Fitzgerald addressed the 16-member jury sombrely. He sought to set the scene in the run-up to the article in the New York Times by Joseph Wilson, the husband of the CIA agent, suggesting that some of the evidence for the Iraq's nuclear weapons programme was false.
"It's Sunday, July 6th 2003, the Fourth of July weekend. The fireworks are over; except a different kind of fireworks are about to begin." He suggested there had been a White House effort to punish Mr Wilson by outing his wife. "They pushed back."
With the media expected to be key witnesses for the prosecution, Mr Wells moved to raise suspicions about their credibility, noting that one witness, Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times, had a "fuzzy memory" and "her notes are cryptic".
The Libby defence team intends to invoke the memory defence to explain why Mr Libby himself was so pre-occupied with national security matters that he forgot who told him about Ms Plame. "It's about three phone calls. Three reporters. Three months later. He was asked to remember, three months later with specificity, a snippet of a conversation."
The opening statements were delayed after it took more than a week to find relatively unbiased jurors.
The jury, of 12 women and 4 men, listened avidly. There was no need for the earlier admonition from Judge Reggie Walton, "I must insist you stay awake".
Copyright © 2007 The Financial Times Limited.