Top Cheney Adviser Indicted on Five Felonies in CIA Leak Probe

Washington Post

A federal grand jury today indicted Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, after a two-year investigation into the leak of a CIA agent’s identity but spared — at least for now –President Bush’s top political strategist, Karl Rove.

Libby was indicted on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. The five-count indictment charged that he gave misleading information to the grand jury, allegedly lying about information he discussed with three news reporters. It alleged that he committed perjury before the grand jury in March 2004 and that he also lied to FBI agents investigating the case.

Shortly after the indictment was announced, Libby resigned his White House positions.

Cheney said in a statement that he accepted Libby’s resignation “with deep regret.” He called his aide “one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known” and said he “has given many years of his life to public service and has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction.” Cheney added that Libby is presumed innocent until proven guilty and that “it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the charges or on any facts relating to the proceeding.”

The indictment of Libby, 55, was presented in court today by the special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, as the grand jury’s term expired. Although no indictment was announced for Rove, 54, the White House deputy chief of staff, today’s proceedings did not remove him from legal jeopardy. Sources close to the case said the investigation of Rove is continuing.

“When citizens testify before grand juries, they are required to tell the truth,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Without the truth, our criminal justice system cannot serve our nation or its citizens. The requirement to tell the truth applies equally to all citizens, including persons who hold high positions in government.”

The indictment contained one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements. The charges involve testimony that Libby gave to the grand jury and other statements he made regarding his conversations with three journalists: Judith Miller of the New York Times, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Tim Russert of NBC. The indictment alleges that Libby lied about how and when in 2003 he learned and subsequently disclosed to reporters information about the covert CIA operative, Valerie Plame. It says he lied to FBI agents on Oct. 14 and Nov. 26, 2003.

Libby is to be arraigned at a later date. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, an appointee of former president George H.W. Bush.

A press release issued by the special counsel’s office said that before Plame’s name appeared in the press in July 2003, her CIA employment was classified and that her affiliation with the agency “was not common knowledge outside the intelligence community.” It said that disclosing such information “has the potential to damage the national security” by preventing the person from operating covertly in the future, compromising intelligence-gathering and endangering CIA employees and those who deal with them.

However, the indictment does not charge Libby with the original alleged offense that the grand jury set out to investigate: illegally revealing the identity of a covert agent in violation of a 1982 federal law.

An attorney for Rove, Robert Luskin, said in a statement this morning, “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. Mr. Rove will continue to cooperate fully with the Special Counsel’s efforts to complete the investigation. We are confident that when the Special Counsel finishes his work, he will conclude that Mr. Rove has done nothing wrong.”

Rove provided new information to Fitzgerald during eleventh-hour negotiations that “gave Fitzgerald pause” about charging Bush’s senior strategist, said a source close to Rove. “The prosecutor has to resolve those issues before he decides what to do.”

This raised the prospect that a new grand jury or another existing one would continue the probe, given the expiration today of the current grand jury’s term.

As tension mounted ahead of the indictment, the White House adopted a business-as-usual approach. Bush traveled to Norfolk, Va., today to deliver a speech on the war on terrorism, and Cheney was in Georgia to attend three political events.

The investigation by the federal grand jury in Washington was originally launched to determine whether anyone illegally leaked the name of Plame, a covert CIA agent, in an effort to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, in retaliation for his criticism of the war in Iraq. Wilson began criticizing the war and the Bush administration after a 2002 trip he took at the behest of the CIA to the African country of Niger to look into reports that Iraq was seeking materials to build nuclear weapons.

The indictment charges that Libby began acquiring information about Wilson’s trip in May 2003 after a New York Times column disputed the accuracy of a Bush statement in his State of the Union address. The column said a former ambassador, who was not named, found the statement to be false.

According to the indictment, Libby learned Plame’s identity from a senior State Department official in June 2003 and was told by Cheney that she worked in the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division.

The two key subjects of the inquiry — Rove and Libby — have acknowledged talking about Plame to reporters, but they have denied leaking her name or committing other wrongdoing.

Libby testified that he did not identify Plame by name to reporters or discuss her covert status with them. But Miller of the New York Times has testified that she believed she first learned of Plame’s CIA job from Libby, when the two spoke on June 23, 2003. Miller said she and Libby discussed Plame again in a meeting on July 8, 2003, and in a phone conversation a few days later, on July 12. She has said she first learned Plame’s name from someone other than Libby but does not recall who it was.

A lawyer who formerly served in the State Department and Defense Department, Libby is the vice president’s assistant for national security affairs in addition to being his chief of staff.

The reported effort to discredit Wilson was rooted in a clash between the White House — notably Cheney — and the intelligence bureaucracy in the CIA and State Department over the war in Iraq. Grand jury testimony that has been disclosed suggests that Bush administration officials suspected the CIA of trying to shift blame for prewar intelligence failures to the White House.

The vice president played a central role in assembling the case for invading Iraq and repeatedly pressed for intelligence that would bolster his arguments. Ironically, it was a question from Cheney during an intelligence briefing that initiated the chain of events that led to the grand jury investigation. He had received a military intelligence report alleging that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger and asked what the CIA knew about it.

As a result, Wilson was dispatched in February 2002 to look into claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger for use in developing nuclear weapons. Wilson has said he found no evidence of any such effort and reported that the claims were false.

Nevertheless, President Bush said in his January 2003 State of the Union address that the British government had learned Hussein “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Two months later, Bush ordered U.S. troops into Iraq to depose Hussein and eliminate a purported threat to the United States from Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction.” No such weapons were found, nor was there evidence that the Hussein regime had reconstituted a nuclear weapons program.

In an opinion piece published in the July 6, 2003, New York Times, Wilson criticized Bush’s State of the Union statement. Wilson wrote that if his findings in Niger were ignored because they did not fit the administration’s “preconceptions about Iraq,” then a case could be made “that we went to war under false pretenses.” He said some intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear program was “twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”

On July 14, conservative political commentator Robert D. Novak wrote a syndicated column that called Wilson’s African mission into question, suggesting the trip was instigated by Wilson’s wife and did not have high-level backing. Novak named Plame as “an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction” and said “two senior administration officials” had told him she had suggested sending her husband on the Niger trip.

Wilson subsequently complained that the Bush administration had compromised his wife’s CIA career in retribution against him.

The CIA then asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak. Fitzgerald, a hard-charging U.S. attorney in Chicago, was appointed special counsel for the probe in late December 2003. His charge was to determine whether anyone involved in the leak violated federal law, including the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. The act makes it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for a person with access to classified information to intentionally disclose the identity of a covert agent to anyone not authorized to receive classified information.

Indications later emerged, however, that Fitzgerald was looking into other possible crimes related to the leak, including conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.

As Fitzgerald was preparing to seek the grand jury indictments, the FBI conducted last-minute interviews Monday night in Plame’s Washington, D.C., neighborhood. The agents were attempting to determine if Plame’s neighbors knew she worked for the CIA before she was unmasked. Two neighbors said they told the FBI they had been surprised to learn she was a CIA operative.

Plame, 42, formerly worked undercover as an “energy analyst” for a private company that was later identified as a CIA front. A graduate of Pennsylvania State University and the London School of Economics, she married Wilson, now 55, in 1998 while she was a covert agent. The couple has 5-year-old twins.

Although the focus has been on Rove and Libby, Cheney himself has been publicly implicated in recent days in the chain of events that led to the exposure of Plame. The New York Times reported Monday that Fitzgerald possesses notes taken by Libby showing that he learned about Plame from the vice president a month before she was identified by Novak. The White House did not dispute the report.

Two lawyers involved in the case said Fitzgerald apparently has been aware of Libby’s June 12, 2003, conversation with Cheney since the early days of his investigation.

Cheney told NBC’s Russert in September 2003 that he did not know Wilson or who sent him on the trip to Africa.

Around the same time, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said any suggestion that Rove was involved in the leak was “ridiculous.” McClellan said President Bush has set “the highest of standards” for his administration and that if any officials were involved in the leak, “they would no longer be in this administration.”

Asked in June 2004 whether he would fire anyone who leaked Plame’s name, Bush replied in the affirmative.

But in July this year, Bush appeared to add a qualifier, telling reporters he would dismiss anyone who “committed a crime” in the case. The White House refused to clarify whether an indictment would trigger termination, or if that would require a conviction.

During the investigation, Fitzgerald sought grand jury testimony from several journalists who had spoken with administration officials about Plame, and he came down hard on those who refused to cooperate.

The federal judge in the case, Thomas F. Hogan, ordered the New York Times’s Miller held for contempt for refusing to identify a confidential source, and she spent 85 days in jail in Alexandria, Va., before agreeing to testify about conversations with Libby. Although she did not write an article about the case, Miller interviewed Libby about the Plame matter and promised him anonymity. Miller said she agreed to testify when Libby specifically and personally released her from the confidentiality pledge.

Among those interviewed by Fitzgerald in the case have been Bush, Cheney and several of their top aides and advisers.

Washington Post staff writer Jim VandeHei contributed to this story

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