By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
A federal jury convicted I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby yesterday of lying about his role in the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity, culminating a four-year legal saga that transfixed official Washington and revealed the inner workings of the White House and the media.
After 10 days of deliberations, the 11 jurors found Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff guilty of four felony counts of making false statements to the FBI, lying to a grand jury and obstructing a probe into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity. The jury acquitted him of one count of lying to the FBI about his conversation with a Time magazine reporter. Libby is the highest-ranking White House official to be convicted of a felony since the Iran-contra scandal nearly two decades ago.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Libby faces a possible prison term of 1 1/2 to three years, but U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton will have wide latitude when he imposes his sentence on June 5. Defense attorneys said they will ask the presiding judge for a new trial or appeal the conviction. The White House declined to comment on the possibility of a pardon.
"We believe, as we said at the time of his indictment, that he is totally innocent, totally innocent, and that he did not do anything wrong," said attorney Theodore Wells Jr. "And we intend to keep fighting to establish his innocence."
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald said on the courthouse steps that he felt "gratified" that the jury agreed with the government's case.
"The results are actually sad," he said. "It's sad that we had a situation where a high-level official, a person who worked in the office of the vice president, obstructed justice and lied under oath. We wish that it had not happened, but it did."
One juror, Denis Collins, said he and fellow jurors had little doubt after reviewing the evidence that Libby could not have forgotten how he learned Plame's identity -- the core of the defense's argument.
"It just seemed very unlikely he would have forgotten that. There were just so many things," said Collins, a writer who worked as a Washington Post reporter in the 1980s. "That he could remember that fact on a Tuesday and forget it on a Thursday . . . didn't make sense."
Libby, 56, was the only person charged in an unprecedented leak investigation that led to the questioning of Cheney and President Bush, though neither testified at the trial. Fitzgerald set out in December 2003 to answer a central question: Did anyone in the administration intentionally and illegally disclose Plame's classified status during the late spring and early summer of that year? At that time, several top officials were speaking to reporters, trying to rebut potent accusations from Plame's husband that the administration had twisted intelligence to justify war in Iraq.
Libby was not charged with the leak but with lying repeatedly to the FBI and a grand jury about how he learned about Plame's identity, and what he told reporters about her that spring and summer.
Libby has said that he forgot he learned about Plame from Cheney in June 2003, and that he believed he heard of her for the first time a month later from NBC's Tim Russert. He said he then shared the information with other reporters.
Fitzgerald said he does not expect to bring any more charges unless new information comes to light.
Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly accused the White House of using flawed intelligence to justify the war and cited a CIA mission he took to Niger in 2002, which found no merit to claims that Iraq was trying to buy weapons-grade uranium. Plame's CIA identity was revealed in a syndicated column eight days later, with senior officials anonymously implying that Wilson's findings were not considered important because nepotism played a role in his assignment.
The trial highlighted the nation's divisions over the war, the Bush White House's intolerance of critics and the uneasy symbiosis between an elite tier of Washington journalists and their confidential sources inside the government.
It also portrayed Cheney as more intimately involved in the details of orchestrating the campaign to disparage Wilson than was previously known. At the grand jury, Libby testified that Cheney was "disturbed" by Wilson's assertions that he was sent on the mission as a result of a question from Cheney about an assessment that suggested Iraq was trying to purchase buy from Niger. The clear implication of Wilson's argument was that Cheney would have been told of his findings.
Indeed, according to evidence at trial, the CIA notified Cheney in early 2002 that it was launching a mission with an unnamed envoy to better answer his question about the Iraq-Niger connection. It is unclear whether the CIA later flagged Wilson's findings for the vice president.
Defense attorneys repeatedly indicated that they planned to call Libby and Cheney as witnesses in the trial. But the two never took the stand; defense lawyers said it was not wise for Libby to testify, and they did not call Cheney.
Cheney said in a statement yesterday that he is "very disappointed with the verdict."
"I am saddened for Scooter and his family," he said. "As I have said before, Scooter has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction through many years of public service."
As the jury forewoman read each guilty count in a clear, solemn voice, Libby was impassive, remaining seated at the defense table, gazing straight ahead with hands crossed. He furrowed his brow after a second guilty count was read, then smiled frozenly as jurors individually affirmed the decision.
Libby's wife, Harriet Grant, sat in the front row with tears in her eyes and held tightly to a member of Libby's defense team. Later, she hugged each of Libby's lawyers and exchanged a few words with her husband.
Bush watched the verdict announcement on television in the Oval Office along with his chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and counselor, Dan Bartlett.
"He said that he respected the jury's verdict, that he was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family," spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said later. She declined to discuss a possible pardon for Libby as a "wildly hypothetical situation" and said the White House would not comment further because of Libby's efforts to seek a new trial.
Wilson, who with his wife has filed a civil lawsuit against Libby and several top administration officials alleging that they disclosed her identity, said yesterday the conviction shows that even a top White House official is subject to the American justice system.
"We're relieved that justice has been done," he said. "We see this as a reaffirmation that we are a nation of laws, we live in a democracy. The verdict shows no man is above the law."
Democratic leaders said Libby's conviction affirmed their concerns that the Bush administration had not told the truth about Iraq's potential threat to the United States and that it engaged in an unethical, no-holds-barred campaign against one man who questioned its assertions.
"Today's guilty verdicts are not solely about the acts of one individual," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "This trial provided a troubling picture of the inner workings of the Bush administration. The testimony unmistakably revealed -- at the highest levels of the Bush administration -- a callous disregard in handling sensitive national security information and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq."
Legal experts said Fitzgerald had a powerful, narrowly drawn perjury case based on the facts unearthed in his investigation, while Libby's attorneys struggled from the start with a defense theory that statements he made repeatedly and in great detail to the FBI and the grand jury might not have been accurate.
"The indictment laid out a theory of deliberate lies that Fitzgerald was able to deliver almost flawlessly at trial," said Bill Lawler, a defense lawyer at Vinson & Elkins and a former federal prosecutor in Washington. But the defense, he said, "had to play the cards they were dealt."
"The biggest problem they had was their client was on the record repeatedly saying what the government thought were lies. There wasn't a lot of wiggle room," Lawler said.
The count that accused Libby of lying to the FBI about his conversation with then-Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper troubled jurors for days. They asked the judge five questions about it as they deliberated, and they ultimately acquitted Libby of the charge.
Richard Sauber, Cooper's attorney, said he thinks jurors believed Cooper's testimony that Libby told him about Plame's CIA role in a July 12, 2003, phone call. Sauber cited the jury's decision to convict Libby on the charge of lying to the grand jury about that conversation.
But Sauber attributed the acquittal on the other false-statement charge to the jury's doubts about whether the FBI accurately described Libby's statements about his conversation with Cooper, something defense attorneys effectively called into question.
Staff writers Elizabeth Williamson, Peter Baker and Christopher Lee contributed to this report.