I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, walks outside the White House, prior to his indictment, Oct. 28, 2005.
Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald speaks to reporters about the indictment, Oct. 28, 2005.
A federal grand jury has indicted White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury. Lewis, the top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, then resigned.
His indictment is a damaging blow to the Bush administration. The charges follow a two-year investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald into the public outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Her name was made public eight days after her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, had criticized the administration on its rationale for the Iraq War.
Left unclear is whether there will be any charges against Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff. Rove's lawyer has said the investigation against him is continuing, and Rove is cooperating. Rove is widely regarded as the political architect of the administration and the fact that he's escaped indictment so far is good news for Mr. Bush. But as the subject of a continuing probe, Rove may be forced to keep a lower profile.
The indictment against Libby and an ongoing probe leave the White House in a defensive position, and prolong a sense of political uncertainty that could shape the rest of President Bush's second term. At a minimum, it's likely to be a huge distraction.
The five-count indictment alleges that Libby, 55, lied on two occasions to FBI investigators, made false statements in two appearances before the grand jury, and impeded the investigation. He will be arraigned in coming days and then it could be up to a year before any trial begins. If convicted on all counts, Libby could face up to 30 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines.
In a news conference, prosecutor Fitzgerald said Libby had claimed he learned about CIA officer Plame from journalists. "Mr. Libby's story that he was at the tail end of a chain of phone calls, passing on from one reporter what he heard from another, was not true. It was false," the prosecutor said. "He was at the beginning of the chain of the phone calls, the first official to disclose this information outside the government to a reporter. And he lied about it afterwards, under oath and repeatedly."
President Bush spoke briefly about the indictment against Libby. Mr. Bush said he had accepted Libby's resignation but "each individual is presumed innocent." "Scooter has worked tirelessly on behalf of the American people and sacrificed much in the service to this country," the president said. "He served the vice president and me through extraordinary times in our nation's history."
In a statement issued by his lawyer, Libby said: "I have conducted my responsibilities honorably and truthfully, including with respect to this investigation. It is with regret that I step aside from that service today. I am confident that at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated."
The charges against Libby are a surprising development for a man colleagues describe as scrupulously discreet. Libby is a Washington insider whose original mentor was Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz brought him along to work at the State Department under President Reagan, and then at the Pentagon under the first President Bush. In the current administration, Libby is not only Cheney's chief of staff, but also his national security adviser, and an assistant to the president. Libby was a key player in making the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The indictment says Libby started gathering information about Joseph Wilson in May 2003, and soon learned from several administration officials that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. It specifically says the vice president spoke to Libby about Plame on June 12, a month before her name was made public. The indictment says Libby understood that Cheney had learned about her from the CIA.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller also testified that in the course of three conversations in June and July 2003, Libby repeatedly brought up Plame — though it's not clear whether he used her name or knew she was undercover. That also raised questions about how truthful Vice President Cheney has been in public statements. In a September 2003 television interview he said he did not know Joseph Wilson or who sent him to Niger.
Miller spent 85 days in jail because she refused to disclose that Lewis Libby was her source on Plame. She only agreed to testify after Libby sent her a two-page letter urging her to, and that letter also raised suspicion about his intent. In the final paragraphs of the letter, Libby wrote, "The public report of every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me." Miller wrote that Fitzgerald asked her about that passage on the witness stand. She told him she was surprised to read it since "it might be perceived as an effort by Mr. Libby to suggest that I, too, would say we had not discussed Ms. Plame's identity," even though they had.
It's unclear what charges Fitzgerald may be seeking to bring against Karl Rove. Rove is known to have spoken with columnist Robert Novak days before Novak published Valerie Plame's name, but he told the grand jury that it was Novak who told him about Plame. Rove did not initially tell the grand jury about another conversation with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper. He says he did not recall it until the investigation uncovered an e-mail Rove had written about the call. In all, Rove testified to the grand jury four times.
Rove, 54, is a long-time key strategist for the Republican Party, known for his aggressiveness in dealing with political opponents. He is considered so indispensable in the current administration that it's hard to envision life in the White House without him. His official title is deputy chief of staff but his role is much larger. Rove has acted as a political tutor to Mr. Bush for three decades. His nuanced knowledge of local party politics helped craft the Bush presidential wins in 2000 and 2004. Rove's stamp is on just about every policy that comes out of the White House, including its public case for the invasion of Iraq.
Impact on the Bush Administration
The investigation may already have hampered the Bush administration. For instance, Rove — who is credited with uniting the GOP — has canceled appearances at fundraisers in recent weeks. Some analysts have linked Republican disarray on the Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination, for example, to Rove's preoccupation with the investigation. Rove also has a longstanding personal bond with Mr. Bush that — should he at some point step down — no one could replace. Cheney, meanwhile, is an extraordinarily powerful vice president, Libby's indictment and subsequent resignation means Cheney loses the service of his most powerful aide.
The indictment does not include charges directly related to the outing of operative Plame. Instead, it alleges that Libby lied during the investigation. Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who is now with the Aspen Institute, says many members of the public may consider the actual charges as not that serious. But, Edwards says, "you cannot look at this case by itself anymore." Edwards notes these indictments follow charges against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, an SEC investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and an indictment against well-connected Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "I think it's another big, big drop in a mounting pile that's going to be very harmful" to the Republican Party, Edwards said. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released this week found that 8 in 10 Americans believe administration officials either broke the law or acted unethically in the Plame affair.
All About Iraq
At its heart, this case is about how the Bush administration handled criticism of its Iraq policy. The indictment against Libby is likely to intensify the still bitter debate about that war. Libby was one of the biggest supporters of the Iraq invasion, and is said to have complained often that the CIA was too timid in its analyses of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons programs and ties to al Qaeda. Libby had a hand in writing the first draft of the presentation Secretary of State Colin Powell made to the United Nations in February 2003. But Powell checked the information with the CIA and ending up taking a lot of it out of his final speech that the Vice President's office had wanted in.
The indictment came the same week that the number of Americans who died in Iraq reached 2,000. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in early October found that 51 percent of Americans do not think the war was worth the casualties and financial cost. For many Democrats, these charges bolster their sense that the administration misled the public about the Iraq war, and has aggressively sought to undermine critics.
But for a number of Republicans, the probe itself is political, a zealous overreaction to the administration's legitimate defense of its policy. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has called the investigation "a kind of proxy for the larger political war about the Iraq War." Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) earlier this week compared it to the Martha Stewart case, and said she hopes if there is an indictment that it's "on a crime and not some perjury technicality."
Ironically, an administration known for its contempt of the media and of leaks is being hindered by conversations with journalists. Already, the Fitzgerald investigation is remarkable for what it's revealed about the normally secretive inner workings of the White House. Libby's trial will no doubt shed even more light. Legal analysts say the prosecution is likely to delve into administration meetings on Iraq policy. Witnesses could include the journalists who've testified before the grand jury, plus top-level administration officials, Cheney among them — though some testimony will probably be held in closed session. A White House administration that fervently defended its decision-making on Iraq may now be subject to the most intense scrutiny yet, even as that conflict drags on.