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Libby pleads not guilty; lawyer promises a fight to clear his name

WASHINGTON—Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he lied and obstructed justice in the probe into the leak of a CIA officer's name.

A lawyer for I. Lewis " Scooter" Libby pledged to fight the charges.

"He wants to clear his good name and he wants a jury trial," Ted Wells said outside the courthouse.

Such a trial could feature the embarrassing spectacle of Cheney taking the witness stand. Prosecutors say Cheney passed classified information about the CIA officer's identity to Libby, who then allegedly shared it with reporters.

Libby is charged in a five-count indictment with lying to a grand jury and federal investigators about his conversations with reporters regarding Valerie Plame, a CIA officer and the wife of a prominent critic of the Bush administration.

For Libby, who's spent much of his career as a behind-the-scenes power broker, Thursday's court appearance marked an entry into the glaring media spotlight that's become the hallmark of Washington scandals.

A crush of reporters and television cameras trailed Libby as he hobbled into and out of the courtroom on the crutches he's using because of a foot injury. His wife, Harriet, wearing large sunglasses, clutched the hand of her husband's longtime lawyer, Joseph Tate, as they navigated the crowd.

As they passed, one heckler outside the courthouse shouted at Libby: "Guilty of taking the U.S. to war on a pack of lies! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!"

The almost two-year-old criminal probe into how Plame's name found its way into a column by conservative writer Robert Novak has focused fresh attention on the intelligence the administration used to justify the war in Iraq.

Plame's name surfaced soon after her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had a piece published in The New York Times that accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to show that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium in Niger. Wilson alleges that the Bush administration outed his wife to retaliate.

Libby is the only person who's been charged in the case, although the investigation of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove continues.

Libby's arraignment lasted just 10 minutes and he uttered only a few words.

"With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty," Libby told U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton. Walton is a former prosecutor whom President Bush appointed to his current post in 2001.

Libby's new team of prominent criminal-defense lawyers, Ted Wells and William Jeffress, flanked him. Wells won acquittals for former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan.

Libby waived his right to a speedy trial to give his defense lawyers time to get the security clearances they'll need to see much of the evidence in the case.

Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald told the judge that much of the evidence that must be provided to the defense as part of the discovery process is classified. "It's voluminous," he said.

Fitzgerald said he was working to declassify some of the most essential evidence and expected to begin providing it to Libby's lawyers as early as next week. But he said defense lawyers would need to start the weeks-long process of obtaining security clearances to see some of the other information.

Fitzgerald predicted that the case against Libby would last about two weeks once the trial began.

Libby was released Thursday without posting bail. The next court date is a Feb. 3 status hearing.

Fitzgerald's probe into the Plame leak is ongoing, although the grand jury that handed up the indictment against Libby has expired.

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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LEAKPROBE

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