Commentary Magazine


Beam Me Up, Scooter

Former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer was on the witness stand in the Scooter Libby trial today and gave testimony that the New York Times says “could prove very damaging” to the former vice-presidential aide. Testifying under a grant of immunity, Fleischer told the court that Libby was the first person to tell him that Ambassador Joseph Wilson had been sent on a mission to Niger by the CIA at the suggestion of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, who was herself, Libby disclosed to him, an employee of the CIA’s counterproliferation division.

Libby is contending that the false statements he gave to the FBI and to a grand jury–about how he learned the identity of Wilson’s wife, and to whom he passed on this knowledge–were the product of a faulty memory and do not amount to the perjury or obstruction of justice with which he has been charged. But according to Stacy Schiff, a guest op-ed columnist at the Times, Libby is reputed to have a prodigious memory and “remembers all 79 Star Trek episodes. And their titles, too.” His memory lapses, she says, amount to what is technically known as the “‘Honey, I was too busy preparing the family tax return to think clearly when you asked about the lap-dancers’ defense.”

For their part, Libby’s attorneys had hoped U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton would allow them to call an expert on human memory, who would help them make their case that “memory does not function like a tape recorder” and “a person is less likely to remember information if he is paying attention to several things at once.” For this purpose, the defense team had hired Daniel L. Schacter, professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory and  Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past.  But Walton has ruled against them. No memory expert will appear in court.

Still, will a jury vote to convict? Even if a convincing case is made that Libby lied to investigators, it will be exceptionally difficult for prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he was prevaricating rather than merely confused. One does not need an expert in memory to persuade a jury that as events recede into the past they become more difficult to remember, or that what appears salient in retrospect might have been quite unremarkable at the time it originally occurred. 

As far as Star Trek is concerned, even if Libby does know all 79 episodes by heart–and this has not yet been demonstrated–it would not logically follow that he would remember every word of every conversation he held in a busy White House in the middle of a war. Like many Trekkies, he more likely viewed each of the episodes multiple times and talked about them at length with others who shared his particular passion, generating a much more firmly imprinted memory than one left by what was said in an offhand way over lunch with a colleague. 

Still, if Libby takes the witness stand in his own defense, as he is expected to do, he is going to have to walk a very fine line between remembering too little, thus sounding evasive, and remembering too much, thus undermining the core of his own defense.
For a full listing of the special counsel’s exhibits in the case, click here.

For a full listing of all 79 Star Trek episodes, click here.