WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 — A picture taking shape from hours of testimony and reams of documents in the trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr. shatters any notion that the White House was operating as a model of cohesion throughout President Bush’s first term.
The trial against Mr. Libby has centered on a narrow case of perjury, with days of sparring between the defense and prosecution lawyers over the numbing details of three-year-old conversations between White House officials and journalists. But a close reading of the testimony and evidence in the case is more revelatory, bringing into bolder relief a portrait of a vice president with free rein to operate inside the White House as he saw fit in order to debunk the charges of a critic of the war in Iraq.
The evidence in the trial shows Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Libby, his former chief of staff, countermanding and even occasionally misleading colleagues at the highest levels of Mr. Bush’s inner circle as the two pursued their own goal of clearing the vice president’s name in connection with flawed intelligence used in the case for war.
The testimony in the trial, which is heading for final arguments as early as Tuesday, calls into question whether Mr. Cheney, known as a consummate inside player, operated as effectively as his reputation would hold. For all of his machinations, Mr. Cheney’s efforts sometimes faltered as he tried, with the help of Mr. Libby, to push back against critics during a crucial period in the early summer of 2003, when Mr. Bush’s initial case for war was beginning to fall apart. In some of their efforts, Mr. Cheney and his agent, Mr. Libby, appeared even maladroit in the art of news management.
While others on the White House team were primarily concerned about Mr. Bush, the evidence has shown that Mr. Libby had a more acute concern about his own boss. Unbeknownst to their colleagues, according to testimony, the two carried out a covert public relations campaign to defend not only the case for war but also Mr. Cheney’s connection to the flawed intelligence.
In doing so, they used some of the most sensitive and classified intelligence data available, information others on Mr. Bush’s team was not yet prepared to put to use in a public fight against a war critic.
A Quiet Scramble