Bush Administration Ducks Libby Embarrassment

A White House spokeswoman said that President Bush was saddened for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby upon learning of his conviction on four counts of lying, perjury and obstructing justice. Democrats immediately called on the president to pledge not to pardon Libby.

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The guilty verdict was bad news for a White House that has earned strong recriminations for its pre-war intelligence. The case also pulled back a curtain on how the very secretive Office of the Vice President aggressively worked to discredit those who challenged its versions of events, especially on Iraq. Lewis Libby was Dick Cheney's top aide, his chief of staff, but this afternoon the White House had very little to say even as a one-time member of its inner circle was convicted of felony charges.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: When the verdict was announced - guilty on four of five counts -Vice President Cheney was on his way to Capitol Hill for a lunch meeting with Republican senators. The president was in the Oval Office and saw the news as it broke on TV. Deputy press secretary Dana Perino described Mr. Bush's reaction.

Ms. DANA PERINO (Deputy Press Secretary, White House): He said that he respected the jury's verdict, that he was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family.

GONYEA: Then Perino said there would be no further comment from the White House.

Ms. PERINO: Scooter Libby's attorneys just announced that they are going to ask for a new trial and that they are going to - failing that, they would appeal the verdict. And so our principal stand of not commenting on ongoing legal investigations is going to continue.

GONYEA: It's a line the White House has used to avoid talking about this case for almost 18 months now. In fact, you have to go all the way back to this statement from October 28, 2005, to find Mr. Bush commenting on Scooter Libby.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Scooter's worked tirelessly on behalf of the American people and sacrificed much in the service to this country. He served the vice president and me through extraordinary times in our nation's history.

GONYEA: But there was today plenty of reaction from Capitol Hill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that trial testimony provided a troubled picture of the inner workings of the Bush administration. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid applauded the verdict, saying it's about time someone in the Bush administration was held accountable, and he said the burden now shifts to the White House and the president.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): He said in the past that anyone who was a leaker would be relieved of duty in the White House. He should follow through on that now, because we have sworn testimony that there were people within the White House in addition to Libby who were leaking information.

GONYEA: One of those Senator Reid was referring to there was senior White House aide Karl Rove, who discussed the identity of the CIA's Valerie Plame with reporters. Reid also called on President Bush to pledge not to pardon Lewis Libby. Spokeswoman Dana Perino was asked about that at the White House.

Unidentified Man: You're not closing the door to it, you're leaving the door open to…

Ms. PERINO: I'm not commenting on a hypothetical situation. I think that that is the best way to respond to that. I think that there's…

GONYEA: But for an administration known for being intensely loyal, this could be a test of whether that extends to a former top-level administration player found guilty of a felony. Politically, a development like this is just the latest damaging story for a White House already dealing with tremendous public discontent over the war in Iraq. At the same time, it also undermines the president's own pledges of ethical conduct within his administration, and it will put more intense focus on Vice President Cheney's role within the White House.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, The White House.

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