By Jim VandeHei and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 29, 2005
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was indicted yesterday on charges of lying to federal investigators and obstructing justice in the 22-month CIA leak investigation. Libby, the first sitting White House aide charged with a crime in recent history, resigned.
Karl Rove, the president's top strategist, narrowly escaped indictment after providing new information during eleventh-hour negotiations with Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald but could still be charged in the case, according to three people familiar with the talks. A source close to Rove said the senior strategist's fate will be known soon.
Libby was one of the most powerful staff members in government and Cheney's closest adviser. Libby faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines if convicted of two counts of making false statements, two counts of perjury and one count of obstructing justice in the secretive probe that rattled the White House and rekindled the debate over the Iraq war.
Libby issued a statement through his attorney, Joseph Tate, in which he said: "I am confident that at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated."
But Fitzgerald's indictment depicts Libby as concocting scenarios that never occurred. In one instance, Libby said he first learned of Valerie Plame's role as a covert CIA operative from NBC's Tim Russert in early July. But Russert and Libby never discussed the operative, according to the indictment. In fact, it says, he learned of her from Cheney, State Department officials and a CIA briefer more than a month earlier.
The 22-page indictment leaves open the possibility of more bad news to come: the specter of a public trial featuring top White House officials and the chance of more indictments in the weeks ahead.
Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, did not charge anyone with the crime he originally set out to investigate nearly two years ago: whether officials illegally disclosed Plame's identity to the news media to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a harsh critic of the administration's Iraq war policy.
Fitzgerald indicated that he considered it, but that Libby's alleged lies made it difficult to prove the root crime of intentionally unmasking a CIA agent.
As for Libby's role as the first person to leak Plame's name to a reporter, the prosecutor said Libby "lied about it, under oath, repeatedly" and damaged national security in the process. That, he added, "to me defines a serious breach of public trust."
Libby is expected to appear for arraignment before U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Tuesday or Wednesday. Walton was appointed to the federal bench by Bush, and was first appointed to the D.C. Superior Court by President Ronald Reagan.
Bush and Cheney said they were saddened by Libby's indictment and resignation -- but praised him as a loyal public servant and offered no criticism of his actions. "In our system, each individual is presumed innocent and entitled to due process and a fair trial," Bush said in a brief statement to reporters. A trial could force a number of White House officials, including the vice president, to testify, but Bush said he is "fully focused" on other problems facing the nation.
On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers were critical of the White House and there was general agreement among members of both parties that Libby did the right thing by stepping down.
Although damaging to the Bush presidency, the indictment was not as bad as many top officials had feared. Before yesterday's events, there was widespread concern inside the White House that Rove and others could be charged with either providing false statements or participating in an effort to leak Plame's name.
But at a news conference that ran more than an hour, a composed and chatty Fitzgerald cautioned that the investigation, while nearly complete, is not over.
The biggest piece of unfinished business involves Rove. Fitzgerald appeared set to charge Rove with making false statements until the White House deputy chief of staff provided new information on Tuesday that gave the prosecutor what two people described as "pause."
It is unclear what information Rove turned over. It is also unclear if it will be enough to prevent a grand jury from indicting him in the weeks ahead. If he decides to seek charges against Rove, Fitzgerald would present the evidence to a new grand jury because the one that indicted Libby expired yesterday and its term cannot be extended.
"The Special Counsel has advised Mr. Rove that he has made no decision about whether or not to bring charges," Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said in a statement. "We are confident that when the Special Counsel finishes his work, he will conclude that Mr. Rove has done nothing wrong."
Fitzgerald refused to comment on Rove. A source close to Rove added, "There is still the chance that Mr. Rove could face indictment." Lawyers involved in the case said Fitzgerald is likely to put pressure on Libby to provide evidence against Rove or other potential targets.
Fitzgerald, whose investigation cost $723,000 in its first 15 months, according to the Government Accountability Office, spoke in public for the first time yesterday afternoon, exhibiting a mastery of the case's details in a 30-minute presentation he delivered while barely glancing at notes. He veered from joking with reporters to sounding idealistic.
"What we see here today, when a vice president's chief of staff is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, it does show the world that this is a country that takes its law seriously, that all citizens are bound by the law," he said.
Yesterday's indictment brought new clarity, if not conclusion, to the CIA leak probe. It alleges that Libby, who was privy to the nation's most sensitive information, sought help from the White House and the national security apparatus in his effort to discredit Wilson.
It charges that he "knowingly and willfully" lied to FBI agents and the federal grand jury many times about how he learned about Plame, and then leaked information about her to the public. It also provides new and vivid details about Libby's alleged efforts to learn about Plame from the CIA, the State Department and at least one colleague in the vice president's office long before her name was publicly disclosed.
The prosecutor said that at a time when the United States is in dire need of human intelligence abroad to help prevent terrorist attacks, Libby's decision to discuss Plame's identity with reporters should frighten all Americans. "The fact that she was a CIA officer was not well-known, for her protection or for the benefit of all us . . . for the nation's security," he said.
Wilson, a former diplomat, had been sent on a CIA-sponsored mission to the African nation of Niger in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq was seeking nuclear-weapons-grade material -- as some in government, including a few in Cheney's office, suspected. Wilson returned from Niger unconvinced and reported his findings to the CIA.
But in his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush used the allegation as part of an effort to show that Iraq was actively pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Shocked and angered, Wilson set out to challenge the claim, starting with private conversations with reporters and culminating with a column in the New York Times, an on-the-record interview with The Washington Post and an appearance on "Meet the Press" on July 6, 2003. Eight days later, his wife's identity was revealed.
The White House originally said Libby and Rove had nothing to do with leaking Plame's name, but the indictment tells a dramatically different story -- especially involving Libby. The following account is taken from the narrative of Fitzgerald's charges:
On or about May 29, 2003 -- more than one month before Wilson went public -- Libby asked a State Department official identified by government sources as Marc Grossman about the CIA mission to Niger. A little more than a week later, a number of classified CIA documents were faxed to Libby's attention, but they did not mention Wilson by name. Libby and someone else in the vice president's office wrote "Wilson" and "Joe Wilson" on one of them.
Soon afterward, Grossman reported to Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and that some people at State believed she helped arrange the Niger mission. Libby secured similar information from a CIA official around this time. He had two sources -- and was about to get a third at the highest levels of government.
On June 12, concerned about a Post report on the Niger trip, Cheney told Libby that Plame worked at the CIA in the Counterproliferation Division. The indictment does not say whether Libby knew that Plame was a covert operative and that leaking her name would be illegal.
But it describes an aide well aware of the sensitive nature of the material he had assembled. He told one aide that there would be complications if the information was leaked, and said he could not discuss the issue on a "non-secure telephone line." All of these conversations could haunt Libby in the course of the investigation.
The indictment also characterizes Libby as singularly brazen in his willingness to concoct a story when later questioned by the FBI. He told FBI agents and the grand jury that he did not know about Wilson's wife until mid-July, and that he thought he learned about it in conversations from reporters.
Libby appears to be the first person to disclose Plame's name to a reporter -- on June 23, at a breakfast meeting with Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify about her conversations with him. Miller, in testimony that damaged Libby, said the two discussed Plame three times. Libby also talked with Time magazine's Matthew Cooper about Wilson's wife.
Libby was allegedly spreading the word about Plame inside the White House, too. He told White House spokesman Ari Fleischer about it over lunch, the indictment says, and mentioned it to other officials aboard Air Force Two.
On at least one occasion, Libby and Rove chatted about Plame, too. Rove -- described as "Official A" in the indictment -- told Libby that columnist Robert D. Novak was planning to write about Wilson's wife. A few days later, the column ran -- setting off the political firestorm that brought down Libby and still threatens Rove.