If this were a theater of war, the obstruction-of-justice case against I. Lewis Libby could be described as a pincer movement.
From one direction comes the testimony of three reporters whose accounts differ significantly from the word of Libby, who resigned yesterday as Vice President Cheney's chief of staff. From the other direction comes testimony from half a dozen Bush administration officials whose accounts also contradict his sworn statements.
In the center is Libby himself, along with the stack of statements that prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald intends to use against him. A number of experienced lawyers said yesterday that the case, with its multiple witnesses, appears strong.
"It's going to be very difficult for Libby to defend himself here," said former CIA inspector general Jeffrey H. Smith.
Perjury charges against public officials can be difficult to prove because of tangled recollections and inevitable shadings of meaning. But former federal prosecutor Daniel Richman said Libby will have trouble making the traditional argument that the case is just a simple misunderstanding.
"By driving home these points through multiple counts, I think Fitzgerald is making clear from the get-go that this is not likely to be a case where that sort of defense goes very far," said Richman, now a Fordham University law professor.
Libby's attorney, Joseph A. Tate, predicted yesterday that his client will be exonerated.
Fitzgerald set out nearly two years ago to learn who leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to try to discredit her husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Bush administration. The prosecutor did not answer that question yesterday, nor did he charge Libby or anyone else with the leak.
Taking reporters' questions, Fitzgerald declined to discuss his findings on the broader questions. He noted the complexity of federal laws prohibiting the outing of covert officers and said Libby prevented a full assessment because of his allegedly misleading statements. He likened Libby's actions to throwing sand in an umpire's eyes.
Fitzgerald said yesterday that his investigation was not over. Attention in recent weeks also has focused on presidential strategist Karl Rove, who changed his initial grand jury testimony and could still face charges.
But the five-count Libby indictment, at least, asserts no conspiracy, focusing instead on what Libby said when questioned.
"It's always the coverup," said Eric H. Holder Jr., deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. "You use whatever tools you have if you're a prosecutor to get at the underlying conduct."
If the case goes to trial, the indictment suggests that Fitzgerald will rely significantly on the testimony of NBC newsman Tim Russert, Time correspondent Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller to show that Libby lied to the FBI and the federal grand jury in Washington. Each of the three told investigators things that did not nearly mesh with Libby's narrative.
"Some people may have had a question going into today whether this would be a one-on-one of Lewis Libby against Judith Miller," said Richman, a former colleague of Fitzgerald's. "What this makes clear is that . . . there will be a reinforcement among the different press witnesses."
Libby's false statements, according to the indictment, began in October and November 2003 in two interviews with FBI agents and continued in two March 2004 grand jury sessions.
The vice presidential aide told his questioners that Russert asked him in July 2003 whether he knew that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Libby said the newsman told him that the word about Plame was out among reporters. "And I said, 'No, I don't know that,' " Libby told the grand jury. He said Russert's questions surprised him, that he remembered "being taken aback by it."
Yet Russert told investigators -- and repeated yesterday on camera -- that he never discussed Wilson with Libby. He said their telephone conversation on July 10 or 11 was about an unrelated complaint from Libby about NBC cable channel coverage.
The indictment not only disputes Libby's account of his conversation with Russert, but also charges that Libby lied about his reaction. He could not have been surprised, even if Russert had told him about Plame, because he already knew about her existence and her relationship to Wilson.
Fitzgerald cites nine prior Libby conversations involving at least seven people, all concerning Plame's CIA employment. They started a month before Libby spoke with Russert, the indictment charges.
Among the seven were Cheney, then-presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, and a CIA national security briefer. Others included Cheney's top press aide, the vice president's counsel and Miller.
Libby also stands accused of lying to the FBI and the grand jury about a July 12 conversation with Cooper. In Libby's version, he told Cooper that he had learned from other reporters about Plame's identity as a CIA officer and that he did not know one way or another.
"I said, 'Reporters are telling us that. I don't know if it's true. . . .' I think I said, 'I don't know if he has a wife, but this is what we're hearing,' " Libby told the grand jury on March 5, 2004. Later that month, he repeated his statement to the grand jury.
He added: "I told a couple reporters what other reporters had told us, and I don't see that as a crime."
But the indictment states that Cooper recalled events differently. Cooper testified, according to the indictment, that Libby had confirmed "without elaboration or qualification" that he had heard Plame was Wilson's husband and had played a role in sending him to Africa to investigate President Bush's statements about Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
Libby told the grand jury he had a similar conversation with Miller of the Times on July 12 about what other reporters ostensibly were saying, and that he did not know whether it was correct. In fact, according to the indictment, Libby first revealed the potential CIA affiliation of Wilson's wife to Miller nearly three weeks earlier.
"On its face, it's easy to follow, clear and hard-hitting," said Lanny Breuer, a former attorney for President Bill Clinton who recently represented former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger on charges of removing and destroying classified documents. "This entire case turns on the memories of the key witnesses, and the credibility of Mr. Libby and the witnesses who testified to the grand jury."
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.