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Vice president's top aide indicted in CIA leak case

WASHINGTON—Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide was indicted Friday on charges of obstructing justice and perjury following a two-year investigation that revived the nation's bitter debate over the Bush administration's flawed rationale for going to war in Iraq.

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, 55, resigned soon after the five-count indictment was announced and left the White House. Cheney said that he accepted Libby's resignation with "deep regret." He called his longtime aide "one of the most talented and capable individuals I have ever known."

Libby's lawyer, Joseph Tate, said his client was innocent and promised a vigorous defense.

The indictment announcement caps an investigation that began over the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name to the press and blossomed into an interrogation of some of the most powerful people in Washington. The investigation also raised questions about the tactics that members of President Bush's inner circle have used to attack their critics and influence reporters.

Yet for all the political intrigue the probe inspired, Friday's news was striking for the questions it left unanswered. Two of the most prominent: who identified the CIA officer as Valerie Plame, the name she used as an undercover officer, and why Libby allegedly lied about where he heard the name.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Bush's top strategist, wasn't charged, at least for now. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said his investigation was ongoing but that the bulk of the work was completed. Rove had made four appearances before the grand jury and was believed to be in the prosecutor's crosshairs.

Libby wasn't charged with leaking classified information or unmasking a spy, the initial reason for the investigation. Instead, like so many other Washington scandals—from Watergate to Monica Lewinsky—prosecutors relied on the fact that Libby allegedly lied to cover up what had occurred.

The indictment handed up by the federal grand jury against Libby charges him with lying to FBI agents and the grand jury about his conversations with reporters concerning Valerie Wilson, the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an administration critic.

Libby was charged with one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements. He faces 30 years in prison and fines of $1.25 million.

The indictment said Libby first began inquiring about Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger in May 2003. The former ambassador went to the African country to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein's regime had attempted to purchase uranium.

A CIA official had informed Libby by June 11 that Valerie Wilson worked at the agency and may have dispatched her husband to Africa, according to the indictment.

Soon afterward, Libby began spreading the information to reporters, beginning with Judith Miller of The New York Times.

At a news conference in Washington, Fitzgerald said Libby initially offered FBI agents "a compelling story," saying he'd heard Wilson's name from reporters and traded it as gossip to other reporters.

"If only it were true. It is not true, according to the indictment," Fitzgerald said.

The prosecutor said Libby heard about Wilson's name from Cheney on June 12, 2003, in a conversation that identified her as working in the CIA's clandestine service. He also heard the information from Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and two other administration officials, the indictment says, although it identifies them only by title.

On July 12, 2003, Libby, Cheney and several others were on a trip to Norfolk, Va., on Air Force Two. On the return trip, the indictment alleges that Libby and others discussed how Libby should respond to several media inquiries. That same day he discussed Wilson with Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and Miller.

One particularly damning detail in the indictment was a lunch Libby had with then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on July 7, 2003. He told Fleischer then that Wilson worked for the CIA. But the lunch took place several days before phone calls Libby had with reporters in which he claims he learned that information, Fitzgerald said.

"He lied about it afterward, under oath and repeatedly," Fitzgerald said.

The charges allege that Libby lied to the grand jury about his conversations with NBC anchor Tim Russert, Cooper and Miller.

The indictment comes as yet another political blow for Bush, who's been fighting a wave of bad news. His Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers, withdrew after failing to gather support from his conservative base. He has the lowest approval ratings in his presidency, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq recently hit 2,000, and another set of photographs of prisoners mistreated by U.S. troops could be released next week.

White House officials breathed a collective sigh of relief that Rove wasn't indicted. But Rove remains under a cloud of suspicion, largely because of his conversation with Cooper, and as long as the probe remains open, the issue will continue to linger.

Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, said that "the special counsel has advised Mr. Rove that he has made no decision about whether or not to bring charges, and that Mr. Rove's status has not changed."

A source close to Rove, who asked not to be named publicly, said the White House political strategist was "Official A" named in the indictment as one of columnist Robert Novak's sources. Novak was the first to name Valerie Wilson in one of his columns, but he used her maiden name, Plame.

A meeting Tuesday between Fitzgerald and Luskin put the brakes—at least temporarily—on the prosecutor's quest to indict Rove, the source said.

Speaking to reporters on Friday after the indictment was made public, Bush said Libby "has worked tirelessly on behalf of the American people and sacrificed much in the service to this country."

Bush said that although he was saddened by the news, "we remain wholly focused on the many issues and opportunities facing this country."

Tate, Libby's lawyer, said in a statement that he was "dismayed" that Fitzgerald had chosen to bring charges. He noted that the case began over concerns that someone had knowingly disclosed the identity of a CIA officer but had resulted in charges regarding differing accounts of who said what when.

"Mr. Libby testified to the best of his honest recollection on all occasions," Tate said.

But Fitzgerald defended the charges, saying that "anyone who would go into a grand jury and lie, obstruct and impede the investigation, has committed a serious crime."

He likened the charge of obstruction of justice to when "the umpire gets sand thrown in his eyes" as he tries to make a call.

Libby is the highest-ranking sitting administration official to face criminal charges in decades. The last was President Reagan's labor secretary, Raymond Donovan, who was charged with grand larceny in 1984.

The investigation into who leaked Wilson's name began in the fall of 2003, soon after she was identified in Novak's column. Her husband had recently published an op-ed piece in The New York Times that disputed the administration's claim that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium from Niger, which turned out to be based on crudely forged documents. He's said that he believed the administration outed his wife to retaliate against him.

Joseph Wilson said Friday night that the indictment "reaffirms my confidence in the criminal justice system."

A Justice Department career prosecutor in the counterespionage section launched the investigation after a complaint by the CIA. Fitzgerald inherited the probe in December 2003 after Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself because of his ties to top officials at the White House.

The case was sidetracked when two reporters—Miller of The New York Times and Time Magazine's Cooper—initially refused to reveal their sources on Wilson's identity. Both eventually testified but Miller did so only after spending 85 days in jail.

Miller told the grand jury that she learned about Valerie Wilson from Libby.

Libby will be arraigned at a future date in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.


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

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