Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, is expected to plead not guilty to charges that he lied and obstructed justice in the CIA leak probe when he is arraigned Thursday, setting the stage for a possible courtroom fight in which Libby's interests could collide with those of the Bush White House, according to several Republican officials.
Libby, who was charged with five felonies, is putting the finishing touches on a new legal and public relations team. It will argue in court and in public that he is guilty of nothing more than having a foggy memory and a hectic schedule, according to people close to him. He is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court before Judge Reggie B. Walton.
As Libby prepared for a court battle, Cheney made plans for life without his closest adviser. Cheney yesterday named longtime counsel David Addington as his new chief of staff and John Hannah as national security adviser. Both were questioned in the Libby indictment.
If Libby's case goes to trial, Addington and Hannah are only two of the many White House officials -- including Cheney himself -- who could be forced to testify about how they handled intelligence, dealt with the media and built the argument for the Iraq war, according to people close to the case. Republicans worry that Libby's court fight will force President Bush to deal with the prospect of top officials testifying and embarrassing disclosures of how the White House operates and treats critics.
It is also possible, they note, that Libby will strike a plea agreement and avert a public trial.
"Obviously, the best thing for the Republican Party is to have this all end as quickly as possible," said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a close White House adviser. "But at the end of the day, you cannot ask a guy who all of us think is an upstanding and honorable guy to give up his legal rights."
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald initially set out to determine whether any administration official had illegally disclosed the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame as part of an effort to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had harshly criticized the administration's use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. After a 22-month investigation, a federal grand jury charged Libby with lying and obstructing justice during the probe.
Criminal defense lawyers say Cheney would probably be called as a witness in any trial, to verify and recount the conversation he had with Libby on June 12, 2003. At that time, Cheney allegedly told Libby that Plame worked in the CIA's Counterproliferation Division.
A senior White House adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic, said the Bush team believes it dodged a bullet when Fitzgerald charged only Libby on Friday and then pointedly said in his news conference that the indictment should not be read as a condemnation of the war or its run-up.
The aide said a trial would be "mostly contained" to Cheney's office, adding that most senior Cheney aides "will have to testify." Still, a number of White House aides will probably be summoned to testify, which could be a political and practical distraction for Bush well into 2006, another person close to the White House said.
The senior adviser said the situation will become a much bigger problem if Rove is indicted.
Fitzgerald appeared prepared to indict Rove heading into last week for making false statements, according to three people close to the probe. But that changed during a private meeting last Tuesday between Fitzgerald and Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin. It's not clear precisely what happened in that meeting, but two sources briefed on it said Luskin discussed new information that gave Fitzgerald "pause."
That evening, Fitzgerald's investigative team called Adam Levine, a member of the White House communications team at the time of the leak. An investigator questioned Levine about an e-mail Rove had sent Levine on July 11, 2003 -- the same day Rove discussed Plame with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, according to Dan French, Levine's attorney.
The e-mail, which did not mention Plame, ended with Rove telling Levine to come see him. The investigator wanted details of that conversation, which took place within an hour or so of the Cooper-Rove chat, according to a person familiar with the situation. Levine told investigators they did not discuss Plame.
Part of Rove's defense has been that he was very busy man who simply forgot to tell investigators about his conversation with Cooper. If the e-mail "was exculpatory at all, it was most likely a small piece of a much larger mosaic of information," French said.
A source familiar with the discussion between Rove and Fitzgerald said the Tuesday meeting was about a lot more than "just an e-mail from Levine." He would not elaborate.
Rove remains a focus of the CIA leak probe. He has told friends it is possible he still will be indicted for providing false statements to the grand jury.
"Everyone thinks it is over for Karl and they are wrong," a source close to Rove said. The strategist's legal and political advisers "by no means think the part of the investigation concerning Karl is closed."
Cooper's attorney, Dick Sauber, said Fitzgerald certainly meant it when he told Luskin last week that Rove remains in legal jeopardy and under investigation. "It wouldn't surprise me knowing how careful he is and how much he doesn't want to be seen as trigger-happy, that he is going through each of those things [that Rove presented] and seeing if they can be verified or not," Sauber said.
"But no prosecutor wants to be embarrassed in court by something he didn't know. And no prosecutor, especially Pat Fitzgerald, wants to be seen as unfair -- especially in this kind of matter with so much at stake."
Yesterday, Wilson delivered a speech in which he said Rove should lose his job regardless of whether he knowingly used Plame's name or revealed her CIA connection. "This is a firing offense," he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected that idea and said Rove was at work, engaged in meetings and enjoying Bush's full confidence. McClellan said the White House will not comment on the leak because the investigation is ongoing and it does not want to prejudice the Libby case.
McClellan, who famously told reporters and the public in 2003 that Libby and Rove had assured him they had no roles in the leak, also defended his own credibility. McClellan said he wishes he could say more, but that he is confident he has been honest and forthcoming. People close to the investigation said Libby and Rove misled the White House spokesman.
Fitzgerald's original grand jury was released from service Friday, after its term expired. Courthouse officials said he is likely to "borrow" a grand jury already convened to investigate additional crimes if needed, and could wrap up his investigation in less than two weeks. It is not uncommon for a prosecutor to quickly present his case to a new grand jury and ask for an indictment, they said.