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Bush's ex-press aide says Libby first told him of CIA link

Fleischer alleges defendant said it was 'hush-hush'

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (right) leaving a Washington courthouse yesterday after testifying about conversation with I. Lewis Libby during a lunch in 2003. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified yesterday that he first heard that the wife of a prominent war critic worked at the CIA from an aide to the vice president, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. He said he thought the information might help deflect critical questions from reporters.

Fleischer said Libby told him about Valerie Plame's job at the CIA over lunch on July 7, 2003. But Libby has told investigators he thought he first learned about Plame on July 10 from NBC reporter Tim Russert.

Four other government witnesses also have said they discussed Plame with Libby before July 10. The discrepancy between those accounts and what Libby told the FBI and a grand jury are a major component of the perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

Libby now says his memory failed him when he spoke to Russert. Russert said yesterday that he did not tell Libby about Plame. "I was not and never have been the recipient of the leak," Russert said.

Acknowledging that he fielded lots of hostile questions at the White House when he was President Bush's chief spokesman from 2001 through mid-2003, Fleischer proved to be a calm and unflappable witness, even under cross-examination by defense attorney William Jeffress. He often turned to speak directly to the jurors.

Fleischer testified under an immunity agreement with prosecutors. He said he sought the deal after reading about the investigation and worrying, "Oh my God. Did I somehow play a role in outing a CIA operative?" He insisted he believed throughout that the information was not classified.

Fleischer said his lunch with Libby was their first and had been scheduled by Libby in anticipation of Fleischer's imminent departure to start his own company.

After talk of career plans and the Miami Dolphins, the subject shifted to the controversy raging over criticism by Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, of Bush's State of Union address in January 2003.

Bush had said that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons, and that assertion had become part of the justification for war with Iraq. Since then, Wilson had said in print and on television that he was sent to Niger to investigate the report and had debunked it in 2002. Wilson contended that questions by Cheney motivated his trip and that Cheney should have received his report months before Bush repeated the story in his speech.

Previous testimony showed that Cheney's office was working to get word out that Cheney didn't send Wilson to Niger and had never heard of his conclusions until media reports in spring 2003.

Libby said Wilson was sent to Niger by his wife, and she worked at the CIA in the counter-proliferation division, Fleischer testified. "I believe he mentioned her name and said something like, 'This is hush-hush, this on the Q-T, not very many people know this.' "

"My sense is that Mr. Libby was telling me this was kind of newsy," Fleischer added. He did not think the information was classified, however, because whenever he was told of classified information "people would always say, 'This is classified. You cannot use it.' "