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Libby case witness details art of media manipulation

Former Cheney aide explains how leaks are used

Cathie Martin candidly testified to how Washington insiders use anonymity and exclusives to spin coverage. Cathie Martin candidly testified to how Washington insiders use anonymity and exclusives to spin coverage. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)

WASHINGTON -- A smorgasbord of Washington insider details emerged during the perjury trial of I. Lewis Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff.

No one served up spicier morsels than Cathie Martin, Vice President Dick Cheney's former top press assistant . Martin described the craft of media manipulation -- under oath and in blunter terms than politicians like to hear in public.

Most of the techniques were candidly described: the uses of leaks and exclusives, when to hide in anonymity, which news medium was seen as more susceptible to control, and what timing was most propitious.

Even the rating of certain journalists as friends to favor and critics to shun -- a faint echo of the enemies list drawn up in Richard Nixon's White House more than 30 years ago.

Libby's trial owes its very existence to a news leak, the public disclosure four summers ago of CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson's identity.

A private brainstorm of Plame Wilson's in 2002 brought a rain of public attacks on Cheney the next year. Cheney was accused of suppressing intelligence and allowing President Bush to present false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Plame's husband, ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, started the attack. Her unit at the CIA had sent him to Niger in 2002 to check a report that Iraq was buying uranium for nuclear weapons. Cheney and the departments of State and Defense wanted to verify that.

Wilson thought he had debunked the report, but Bush mentioned it anyway in his State of the Union address in 2003. The story helped justify war with Iraq.

Wilson said Cheney's questions prompted his trip and Cheney should have received his report long before Bush spoke.

Wilson's charges first surfaced, attributed to an unnamed ex-ambassador, in Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column. But Martin testified she felt no urgency to set him straight because Kristof "attacked us, our administration fairly regularly."

But by July 6, 2003, Wilson wrote his own account in the Times and appeared on "Meet the Press" on NBC.

After that much exposure, Cheney, Libby, and Martin spent the next week trying get out word that Cheney did not know Wilson, did not ask for the mission to Niger, never got Wilson's report, and only learned about the trip from news stories in 2003.

Cheney personally dictated these points to Martin. She e-mailed them to the White House press secretary for relay to reporters.

When the story did not die, Martin found herself in a bind because Cheney's office was known for disclosing so little.

"Often the press stopped calling our office," Martin testified. "At this point, they weren't calling me asking me for comment."

So she had to call National Security Council and CIA press officers to learn which reporters were still working on stories.

Once Martin got names, Cheney ordered his right-hand man, Libby, rather than lowly press officers, to call -- a signal of the topic's importance.

Top levels of the Bush administration decided CIA Director George Tenet would issue a statement taking the blame for Bush mentioning the Niger story. Cheney and Libby worried Tenet would not go far enough to distance the vice president from the affair. Libby asked Martin to map a strategy in case Tenet fell short.

A Harvard law school graduate, Martin had succeeded Mary Matalin as Cheney's public affairs assistant. Matalin had brought Martin to Cheney's office as her deputy and trained her.

Martin offered these options :

Put Cheney on "Meet the Press."

Leak an exclusive version to a selected reporter or the weekly news magazines.

Have National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice or Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hold a news conference.

Persuade a third party or columnist to write an opinion piece that would appear in newspapers on the op-ed page.

Not only did Tenet leave unanswered questions about Cheney, his remarks came out late on a Friday, the government's favorite time to deliver bad news because fewer people are paying attention .

As Martin rated their options, they considered giving an exclusive or leak to one reporter. Because reporters are competitive, "if you give it to one reporter, they're more likely to write the story," Martin testified.

Plus an official can demand anonymity in return for the favor, she said.

Ultimately, Cheney crafted an on-the-record statement to be attributed to Libby by name . Libby called Matt Cooper of Time, who had e-mailed questions to Martin earlier.

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