What Scooter Libby said, what Matt Cooper wrote

The Libby trial devolves into an exploration of what reporters' notes are really like.

Published January 31, 2007 9:15PM (EST)

We've always been a little amused by the notion that someone might someday subpoena our notes; we can't read our own handwritten notes unless we try to translate them immediately after taking them, and sometimes not even then. That's why we've taken to using a tape recorder when we're interviewing people in person, and it's why we type notes into a computer when we conduct interviews by telephone.

Having just watched what William Jeffress tried to do to Matt Cooper, we're not sure what we're going to do now.

Cooper, a former reporter for Time, spoke to Scooter Libby by telephone on a Saturday afternoon in July 2003. Cooper was at home -- "sprawled" across his bed, as Jeffress has put it repeatedly today, and taking henotes on his laptop. Time gave those notes to Patrick Fitzgerald, and Jeffress has now put them on a video screen for the jury to see.

They're not pretty, which is to say, they look a lot like the sort of notes we take on our laptop -- a lot of half-finished thoughts intermixed with a ton of typographical errors. That's just how it goes when you're taking notes on the fly, but it also provides a lot of fodder for a lawyer like Jeffress.

Here -- at least according to our notes -- is what Jeffress did with Cooper's notes.

Toward the end of Cooper's notes are the words "had something and about the Wilson thing and not sure that it's ever." Jeffress asked whether that could be where Cooper told Libby that he'd heard that Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and Libby responded with something like "Yeah, I've heard that, too." It could be, Cooper said. But maybe Libby really said that he "had" heard something? Cooper said he didn't remember it that way.

Jeffress then asked Cooper if he frequently types the word "and" when a source hasn't actually said the word "and." Cooper said he didn't know. Jeffress' response: "Let's take a look at some of your note-taking practices." Jeffress then walked Cooper through a sea of seemingly random "ands" in his notes. The implication: When Cooper wrote "had something and about the Wilson thing," maybe what he meant was that Libby said that he'd "heard something about the Wilson thing."

"You make a lot of typos," Jeffress said; then he pointed to a line in the notes in which Cooper typed: "I did not state of the union." What did you mean there, he asked. "That particular line, I would have to think about." What about the part that says "we maha d and more focus on project bioshield and different spee"? Cooper wasn't sure about that, either.

Jeffress: OK, so this is your best effort, as someone in a conversation that's taking place quickly, to get down what you need to ... but it's by no means complete or accurate?

Cooper: It's by no means complete.

Jeffress: It's not accurate.

Cooper: I wouldn't say it's unaccurate.

Jeffress: Do you ever type an "r" when you mean to type an "n"?

Cooper: I'd have to look at it.

With that, Jeffress marched Cooper through another painful trip through his typography up on the video screen. "Erroreous" should be "erroneous," right? Yes. And "erergy" should be "energy," correct? Correct.

Then Jeffress put back up that line from the Libby interview: "had something and about the Wilson thing and not sure that it's ever.

After a semidramatic moment of silence, Jeffress asked Cooper if, when he typed "had something and about the Wilson thing and not sure that it's ever," he might really have meant to type: "had heard something about the Wilson thing and not sure that it's even"? And if that's possible, he said, then isn't it also possible that Libby finished the sentence with the word "true" -- as in, he "had heard something about the Wilson thing and not sure that it's even true"?

Cooper said that had he typed an "r" in "ever" when he meant to type an "n" in "even," then sure, yeah, maybe that might support the reading that Jeffress was trying to push. But he said -- as he did before the grand jury -- that he has his doubts that that particular line of his notes even refers to Libby's comment about Wilson's wife. Moreover, he said, the way he remembers it is pretty much how he reported it in Time -- that he asked Libby about the fact that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, and Libby said something like, "Yeah, I've heard that, too."

What will the jurors think about all of it? That journalism, like sausage, is something you don't necessarily want to see being made? Or will they conclude that Cooper was sloppy, that Libby really had said that he didn't know whether the "Wilson thing" was true, and that therefore maybe Libby wasn't as focused on the issue as Patrick Fitzgerald would like them to think he was? It will be a couple of weeks, at least, before we get the answer to that question. For his part, Cooper seems certain of his work product, even if he might prefer that the process that got him there was a little more sanitary. Jeffress asked Cooper if it isn't possible that he has misremembered what Libby actually said. "I remember it pretty vividly," Cooper said. "I've had a lot of occasion to think about that conversation."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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