As jury selection began Tuesday in the criminal trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, claim that the vice president cannot assert immunity from their complaint.
The Wilsons have sued Libby, Cheney, senior White House adviser Karl Rove, former deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and nine unnamed government officials, accusing them of conspiring to destroy Plame's career at the CIA.
The Wilsons claim they were seriously injured by "retaliatory revelation" in revealing Plame's CIA employment. The court filing states the Wilsons' "fear for their safety and for the safety of their children." And, the filing says, "disclosure of Mrs. Wilson's covert identity makes her and her family a target for those persons and groups who bear hostility to the United States and/or its intelligence officers."
Attorneys for the Wilsons write that, "No case ever has accorded the Vice President absolute immunity." The court filing states that the fact that Cheney is a part of the executive branch "does not warrant according him absolute immunity."
The Wilsons allege that Plame's name was leaked to reporters in retaliation for a July 2003 op-ed column published in The New York Times by Wilson, refuting U.S. pre-war intelligence on Iraq's nuclear program.
The Wilsons' attorney, Melanie Sloan, writes they are seeking "money damages as compensation for the substantial harms they have suffered from the violation of constitutional and common right laws."
Statements to 'Hardball'
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who is presiding over Libby's criminal trial, strongly admonished Sloan on Dec. 20 for her appearance on the MSNBC program "Hardball," where she predicted a jury could find Libby guilty of making false statements.
Sloan told MSNBC's Chris Matthews, "I think a jury could easily still find him guilty without being the first to leak because that's not what he's been charged with. He's not charged with leaking. He's charged with making false statements."
Walton wrote in an opinion that "The Court would not tolerate this case being tried in the media."
Walton added that “making disparaging comments in a television interview about a criminal defendant in a highly publicized case on the eve of trial could cause potential members of the jury pool to engender negative attitudes about the defendant.”
In Tuesday's filing, Sloan writes that after syndicated columnist Robert Novak published Plame's name, Rove called Matthews and told him that Plame was "fair game."
Sloan adds, "Rove attempted to make this statement targeting Mrs. Wilson off the record and on the condition that he not be identified as its source, so as to avoid detection for the wrongdoing."
Motions to dismiss
Lawyers for Cheney and Libby have filed motions to dismiss the civil complaint. Cheney's attorneys argue that the suit should be dismissed on various grounds including that, "the Vice President is entitled to qualified immunity," and that Cheney is "absolutely immune from suits for civil damages."
The lawyers for the Vice President, who is expected to be a witness for Libby, also contend that the Wilsons' civil action arose after the statute of limitations for such filings had passed. Cheney's attorneys write that the Wilsons "have not pled that the Vice President ever made any public disclosure of Mrs. Wilson's alleged CIA employment status. The sole pertinent factual allegation is that the Vice President communicated the fact of her CIA employment to his national security advisor and chief of staff."
Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has spent nearly three years investigating who revealed Plame's identity to Novak and Washington Post editor Bob Woodward in 2003, but no one was ever charged with that leak. Armitage last summer revealed that he was the first source of Plame to both reporters.
Joel Seidman is an NBC producer based in Washington, D.C.