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Libby a low-profile but powerful inside player

WASHINGTON—I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby is a Washington throwback: someone who prefers to remain quietly in the background and let his power and influence speak for themselves.

For nearly 20 years, Libby has been the seldom seen but often heard voice in power centers such as the Pentagon, the State Department and lately in the White House as Vice President Dick Cheney's ever-discreet chief of staff and national security adviser.

"He's not the typical government employee," said Mary Matalin, a former Cheney counselor. "He's not a horn-tooter, he's not a whiner and he doesn't seek the limelight."

But he couldn't avoid it Friday. Libby's indictment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges in connection with the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name to reporters made him the main course in the insatiable 24-hour news cycle, thrusting the 55-year old who still goes by his childhood nickname squarely into the spotlight.

To his critics, Libby embodies the neoconservative, hard-line philosophy that marched President Bush into a war with Iraq and persuaded him to adopt a swaggering, pre-emptive strike foreign policy against enemies of the United States.

To friends and associates, Libby is a Renaissance man: a masterful lawyer, a smooth-writing novelist, an expert skier and a deep thinker who lets the cold hard facts, not ideology, dictate his politics.

In the White House, he was regarded as "Dick Cheney's Dick Cheney," quietly but forcefully providing information and advice to the vice president the way Cheney counsels Bush.

"When Scooter brings an analysis, an idea, to the vice president, the vice president knows he's done all of the homework," Matalin said.

Libby's portfolio—much like Cheney's—extended beyond his job title.

"He wears two hats in that he's kind of a principal on all policy issues," Matalin said. "His other hat is he works with Karl (Rove) and (White House Chief of Staff) Andy Card. He's not just Cheney's go-to guy ... we all work for Bush."

Libby was one of the key architects in building the White House's case for going to war against Iraq.

When former Secretary of State Colin Powell was to go before the United Nations to outline the administration's case against Saddam Hussein, Libby tried to persuade him to cite a slew of arguments about Iraq's search for weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorists. Powell found them dubious and challenged Libby to document his points. When Libby was unable to verify much of the information to Powell's satisfaction, Powell excluded most of it from his speech.

Despite Libby's low public profile, his work didn't go unnoticed by critics of the administration.

"When historians finally lift the curtain on the Bush administration, they will discover that Irv Lewis `Scooter' Libby was one of the most important men pulling the levers," according to a Web profile of Libby by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic research center in Washington. "Libby ... has been center stage for every one of the administration's national-security scandals."

A headline from The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a nonpartisan publication and Web site that's criticized Bush's polices, proclaims Libby "The Nexus of Washington's Neo-con Network."

Matalin and other Libby associates dismiss such labels.

"He's not pushing an agenda; that's the laugh about this neo-con business," she said. "He's very fact-based. He's just an all-around cool guy."

Libby didn't appear to be on the road to conservatism as a youth. As a student at the exclusive Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., he once canvassed for liberal Democratic presidential nominee Eugene McCarthy, recalled Jackson Hogen, a Phillips classmate, Yale roommate and ski buddy of Libby's.

"You certainly wouldn't call him a conservative," Hogen said. "There were plenty of right-wing groups and (William F.) Buckleyites, and he never hung around them."

Libby was a high-profile campus leader at Andover as head of the debating society, a position that required him to address the student body every week.

"If he could have been below the radar, he would have considered that a great achievement," Hogen said.

After graduating from Phillips, Libby enrolled at Yale in 1968, where he indulged his fascination with the written word by taking creative-writing courses to hone his skills. In 1996, he published "The Apprentice," a well-received novel set in Japan.

Young Libby also was interested in politics and became close to a political science professor named Paul Wolfowitz.

"He seemed as interested in writing as he was with Wolfowitz," Hogen said. "But you could tell that Wolfowitz captured his imagination."

Wolfowitz later held a variety of senior positions at the State and Defense departments during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. A Ph.D. in political science with a sterling academic pedigree, he's a leading theorist of the neoconservative approach to U.S. foreign policy, which emphasizes a muscular, assertive American role in shaping global affairs. As deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005, he was one of the most influential proponents of invading Iraq in 2003.

He became a mentor and guided Libby into the federal government. After earning his law degree from Columbia University in 1975, Libby joined a Philadelphia legal firm. He left the firm in 1981 after getting a call from Wolfowitz, inviting him to join President Reagan's State Department. He started out on the policy and planning staff and rose to director of special projects in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

He left the department in 1985 to resume his legal career, only to be summoned again by Wolfowitz in 1991, this time to the Defense Department under the first President Bush.

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

His work caught the eye of Cheney, who was then defense secretary. When the current President Bush selected Cheney to be his running mate, Cheney chose Libby to be one of his top advisers during the 2000 campaign. He then followed the vice president into the White House.


(Joseph L. Galloway contributed to this report.)


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

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