Scooter Libby's fuzzy-memory defense

The former vice presidential aide raises "I don't recall" to high art.

Published August 1, 2006 4:54PM (EDT)

Why does Scooter Libby's account of events in the Valerie Plame case not jibe with that of reporters from Time, NBC and the New York Times? You could say because he's lying. But that's not a very kind interpretation. And according to Libby's defense team, Libby and various prosecution witnesses may have different recollections because of something far deeper and more complex -- the poorly understood way in which the human brain processes memory.

This is not a joke. On Monday Libby's lawyers asked Reggie B. Walton, the federal judge presiding over Libby's upcoming trial on charges that he lied to investigators during the Plame investigation, to allow them to bring a memory expert to the stand to explain the idiosyncratic way our brains record and retrieve what goes on in our lives.

Among the facts that Libby's team wants the expert -- Robert A. Bjork, chairman of the psychology department at UCLA -- to explain to the jury is that "memory does not function like a tape recorder, with memories recorded, stored and played back verbatim." Rather memories are malleable, and can be influenced by a person's prior memories and other events. The filing -- available, like everything else, at the TPM Document Collection -- also explains that "memory research has shown that people can forget that they once remembered something," and that "forgetting, rather than being simply a weakness of memory, is also an efficient component in the efficient use of memory."

I'd have fingered Libby as a fairly hard-nosed guy, a man of moral clarity who sees the world as a place of irrefutable truths, where something so fuzzy as the flaws of memory would never sully one's sense of right and wrong. So it's fun to see him pursue this postmodern avenue now, embracing, like a hippie who's eaten too many special brownies, the "Rashomon" qualities of life. Libby remembers one set of facts, and Judith Miller, Tim Russert and Matthew Cooper remember something else. But can we ever really know for sure what exactly happened? What is truth? What is knowledge? How did we get here? What is the meaning of it all? We might as well call the whole thing off.

It's unclear if the judge will allow Libby's memory expert; as the Associated Press points out, Walton has previously expressed skepticism about the relevance of such testimony.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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