By MATT APUZZO
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, in tapes played Monday in the CIA leak trial, pressed Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff on whether Cheney had directed him to leak the identity of a CIA operative to reporters.
The audiotapes showed that Fitzgerald, just two months into his leak investigation, was asking pointed questions about the highest levels of government.
The first 90 minutes of audiotapes, recorded during the 2003 grand jury testimony of top Cheney aide I. Lewis ``Scooter'' Libby, were played for jurors in Libby's perjury and obstruction trial. More than six hours of additional tapes were to be played Tuesday.
Fitzgerald began his questioning by determining what he already knew to be true - that Libby was not the source of syndicated columnist Robert Novak's story revealing that the wife of an outspoken Bush administration critic worked for the CIA.
Almost immediately after that, however, Fitzgerald steered the discussion toward Cheney and how his office responded to the growing criticism from former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who claimed to have led a fact-finding mission that refuted some prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Cheney's former spokeswoman, Cathie Martin, has testified that Cheney's office viewed Wilson's criticism as a direct attack on the president's credibility and was focused on beating it back.
During that effort, Libby said, Cheney mentioned in an offhand way in June 2003 that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA. Fitzgerald asked whether Cheney was upset by the apparent ``nepotism'' in the fact Plame may have arranged the trip. Libby said he did not recall.
Fitzgerald, who questioned Libby in a non-confrontational, sometimes even casual manner, also asked whether Cheney expected Libby to share that with reporters, specifically Walter Pincus of The Washington Post. Libby said he did not.
Fitzgerald asked four times and in four different ways whether Libby could be absolutely sure he did not disclose the information to Pincus. Pincus never revealed Plame's identity.
``The vice president obviously thought it was important enough to share with you or interesting enough to color the background, correct?'' Fitzgerald said.
``Yes,'' Libby replied.
Fitzgerald never brought a leak charge. Libby, who is accused of lying about his conversations with reporters regarding Plame, is the only person charged in the case. Fitzgerald believes Libby lied to protect his job and reputation. Fitzgerald has never accused Libby of lying to protect Cheney.
Prosecutors say Libby learned about Plame from Cheney, passed it on to reporters, then concocted a story about learning her identity from NBC reporter Tim Russert. Defense attorneys say Libby forgot the information after hearing it from Cheney and learned it again from Russert as if it were new.
Fitzgerald has presented several witnesses, including former State Department Undersecretary Marc Grossman and CIA official Robert Grenier, who say they spoke to Libby about Plame well before he could have learned about her from Russert. In his grand jury testimony, Libby said he had no recollection of such conversations.
``Do you recall any conversation at any time when Secretary Grossman told you that the former ambassador's wife worked at the CIA?''
``I don't recall,'' Libby said.
``You have no memory of that whatsoever?'' Fitzgerald responded.
``I'm sorry sir, I don't,'' Libby replied.
Jurors followed along in their transcripts as Libby's testimony was played through the court speakers. Libby sat expressionless at the defense table, occasionally following along himself.
It is unusual for the government to make such extensive use of a defendant's taped grand jury testimony. The federal government did so 17 years ago in another high-profile criminal case in Washington, D.C., the drug trial of Washington Mayor Marion Barry.
^---Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.