by Jason Ryan, ABC News
Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, testified Monday afternoon that his former colleague, White House adviser I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, told him in July 2003 that the wife of former ambassador and war critic Joseph Wilson worked for the CIA.
Fleischer recounted a private lunch he'd had with Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, in July 2003, the day after Wilson published an op-ed that accused the administration of deliberately ignoring prewar intelligence on Iraq in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
Fleischer said his lunch with Libby occurred days before Libby told investigators he was surprised to learn about the CIA operative's connection to Wilson from a reporter. The timing of Libby's learning of her identity is central to his defense and the prosecution in the perjury and obstruction case.
Fleischer told the jury today that their lunch covered other issues but eventually turned to the controversial editorial Wilson had written in which he said the administration knowingly exaggerated any connection between Iraq and efforts to purchase uranium in the African nation of Niger. Wilson had made a fact-finding mission to Niger earlier that year.
Fleischer testified that Libby told him that "Ambassador Wilson was sent by the CIA. ... The vice president did not send Wilson. ... Wilson was sent by his wife. ... She works at the CIA."
Fleischer also testified that Libby told him over lunch that "this is hush-hush, on the QT. ... I think he mentioned her name ... Valerie Plame ... that was the first time I had heard it.
"I thought this was kind of odd ... kind of newsy," the former press secretary said.
On the stand Monday Fleischer was asked by Deputy Special Counsel Peter Zeidenberg about the terms of his immunity agreement and his three appearances before the grand jury in the leak investigation.
"I requested immunity as a result of the information I had been provided," Fleischer said.
Asked by Zeidenberg if he believed that the information disclosed during his lunch with Libby was classified, Fleischer said, "absolutely not."
Fleischer explained to the jury that he did have access to classified information, up to the top-secret level. But when people gave him classified information they clearly told him "this information is classified. You cannot use it."
Later in the day, under continued questioning by Zeidenberg, Fleischer detailed how he'd learned from a second senior White House official that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and then told reporters about this fact.
Fleischer testified that then-White House communications director Dan Bartlett exclaimed on Air Force One July 11 that Wilson's wife worked at the agency.
According to Fleischer, after reading a classified report, Bartlett said, "I can't believe he or they are saying the vice president sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger. ... His wife sent him. She works at the CIA."
"Something in this document caused him to vent," Fleischer told the jury.
Fleischer testified that the controversy over statements in Bush's 2003 State of the Union address grew during an overseas trip to Africa after Wilson's July 6, 2003, op-ed piece appeared.
At the outset of the trip, then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley told Fleischer, "The White House was not going to stand by those remarks any longer." He was referring to the claims in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa.
"The whole trip was mired in controversy," Fleischer said.
On July 11, 2003, after he overheard Bartlett's comments, Fleischer discussed the fact that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA with two reporters who were accompanying him on the trip to Uganda.
When the story grew after Bob Novak published Valerie Plame's name, Fleischer described his reaction to the possible violations of law.
"I never thought in my wildest dreams that this would be classified," he testified. "I was absolutely horrified. ... Oh my God, did I somehow out a CIA operative? ... Did I do something that could get me in big trouble?"
As Fleischer's testimony continues, the defense will focus on his discussions with reporters to show he was freely discussing Valerie Wilson's employment. Fleischer has maintained that he did not think the information was classified.
He is the fifth witness to testify for the government.
David Addington, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, is expected to be the prosecution's next witness.
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