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Reporter's testimony shifts spotlight to Cheney's chief of staff

WASHINGTON—I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, emerged Friday at the center of the federal grand jury inquiry into who inside the government leaked the identity of former undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller testified to the grand jury behind closed doors for more than four hours, after serving 85 days in jail rather than discuss in court her off-the-record July 2003 interview with Libby. She appeared in court only after hearing directly from Libby by telephone and letter that he had no objection to her testifying.

"I served 85 days in jail because of my belief in the importance of upholding the confidential relationship journalists have with their sources," Miller said. "Believe me, I did not want to be in jail. But I would have stayed even longer."

Miller's decision to break her silence turns the spotlight from White House political guru Karl Rove to Libby. Why did the prosecutor want Miller's testimony about Libby so much that he jailed her for 85 days to pressure her to talk? And just who is Libby, besides being a force in the Bush White House with a colorful past?

In a sign of Libby's importance to his investigation, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald limited Miller's testimony to only her conversations with Libby. Fitzgerald has called Miller's testimony key to the investigation.

But it remained unclear Friday whether Libby was the target of the probe. He has denied involvement in the leak of Plame's identity as a CIA officer.

Columnist Robert Novak revealed Plame's CIA role in July 2003, citing "two senior administration officials" as his sources. Miller never wrote a story about Plame, but she discussed the matter with Libby. Libby also was named as a source on Plame by Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in testimony before the grand jury earlier this year.

Independent prosecutors say Miller's testimony could be important to Fitzgerald's inquiry merely to corroborate Cooper's testimony. Or it could exonerate Libby rather than implicate him.

The Plame case began more than two years ago with an opinion article by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, which questioned the Bush administration's rationale for the war in Iraq. Wilson alleges that the administration disclosed his wife's former CIA role to punish him. The revelation eventually ended Plame's career as an undercover officer.

Fitzgerald "could just as easily be clearing him (Libby)," cautioned Zachary Carter, a former U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. Carter said that in a case as politically charged as the Plame affair, prosecutors must leave the impression that no stone has been left unturned for the investigation to have credibility.

But Carter also argued that if Fitzgerald is building a case against Libby or someone else in the White House, he would want corroboration, and that might be what Miller provided.

"Because of the stature and presumed credibility of the people involved here, it's not a case I would be crazy about bringing based on one person's testimony," Carter said.

Adding to the political intrigue is Libby himself. The 54-year-old Connecticut-born, Florida-raised Libby isn't often visible to the public, preferring to be a behind-the-scenes aide to a behind-the-scenes vice president.

But as Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser, Libby's power and influence are unmistakable. He was a key architect in building the administration's case for going to war against Iraq. Before former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his February 2003 speech to the United Nations detailing the administration's case against Saddam Hussein, Libby's office gave him a 48-page document with intelligence on Iraq's weapons program.

Powell, unable to substantiate much of the information in the document, excluded much of it from the final draft of his U.N. speech.

Libby's formative years mirror President Bush's: He attended Philips Andover, an exclusive New England prep school. He went on to Yale University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in 1972.

At Yale, Libby encountered political science professor Paul Wolfowitz, who later became a mentor. After earning a law degree from Columbia University in 1975, Libby joined a Philadelphia law firm. His legal career was interrupted in 1981 by a phone call from Wolfowitz, who offered him a job at the State Department's Policy and Planning staff under President Ronald Reagan.

Libby rose at the State Department to director of special projects in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He left State in 1985 to resume his legal career, but returned to public service in 1991 when Wolfowitz invited him to join him at the Defense Department under President George H.W. Bush.

At the Pentagon, Libby helped write new Defense Planning Guidance that called for bolstering U.S. military capabilities and advocated pre-emptive force to curb other nations from developing weapons of mass destruction.

Cheney, the defense secretary under the first President Bush, noticed Libby's work. When the current President Bush tapped Cheney to be his vice president, Cheney picked Libby to be one of his top advisers during the 2000 presidential campaign. Libby followed Cheney into the White House.

Despite his power and influence, Libby isn't a one-dimensional political creature. He's an avid skier, once profiled in Ski magazine, and the author of a mystery novel, "The Apprentice," set in Japan. As an attorney, Libby represented fugitive financier Marc Rich, who received a controversial pardon by President Bill Clinton.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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