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Libby lawyers gauge potential jurors' views about Bush officials

Former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (right) with his legal team yesterday at federal court in Washington. (PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON -- Two potential jurors who expressed negative views of Bush administration officials were dismissed on the opening day of the perjury trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

The start of jury selection in the CIA leak case provided a potentially crucial victory for 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 US District Judge Reggie Walton asked the entire jury pool when the proceedings began yesterday 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 whether "somebody has a very negative attitude to the Bush administration."

Libby, who was 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 yesterday came during extended questioning of a young financial analyst who said that Cheney would have a strike against him in a credibility dispute with other witnesses. So Walton excused him for cause.

Six jurors were qualified to serve yesterday. 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.