WASHINGTON – President Bush’s administration did all it could Friday to close the book on I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Don’t have any contact with Libby about his indictment, staffers were warned. His security clearance – gone. And no goodbye meeting with the president. Libby “has left the White House, and I do not expect him to return,” spokesman Scott McClellan said.
If only it were that easy.
Far from a clean end to the CIA leak investigation, Libby’s indictment is just the start of a potentially drawn-out legal process and does nothing to halt an ongoing investigation of the president’s top political adviser, Karl Rove.
Libby’s indictment “is bad. Nobody can spin it otherwise, but the real bad part is the lack of closure,” said Rich Bond, a former Republican national chairman. “You’ve got the trial potentially coming up. You’ve got the vice president potentially appearing as a prosecution witness. And you’ve got a grand jury still going on and looking at Rove.”
A trial or further indictments could lay bare some of the White House’s most politically embarrassing secrets: How did they come to use such flawed intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war? How did they deal with political enemies like war critic Joseph Wilson? And did Vice President Dick Cheney or even the president himself know anything about Libby’s activities?
Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, was charged Friday with obstruction of justice and lying to a grand jury and federal agents in the two-year CIA leak investigation that has shaken the White House.
Rove, the president’s longtime political adviser and deputy White House chief of staff, was not charged, though special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said he had not yet finished his inquiry into the unauthorized disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Libby, who started his day at the White House, resigned and left. Cheney, traveling in Georgia, issued a statement praising his longtime associate, noting that he’s presumed innocent until proven otherwise and declining further comment because of the “pending legal proceeding.”
Bush, in a brief meeting with reporters on the White House lawn, said he was “saddened” by the charges, but would press on with his agenda. “I got a job to do, and so do the people who work in the White House,” he said.
In the five-count indictment Libby faces one count of obstruction of justice and two counts each of perjury before a federal grand jury and making false statements to FBI agents.
According to the charges, Libby repeatedly lied about his conversations with reporters, saying he had learned of Plame’s CIA identity from reporters when, in fact, he had discussed her earlier with the vice president, among others, including former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, on July 7, 2003.
“What’s important about that is that Mr. Libby, the indictment alleges, was telling Mr. Fleischer something on Monday that he claims to have learned on Thursday,” Fitzgerald said during a news conference at the Justice Department
A senior administration official, identified as “Official A,” and an undersecretary of state were also cited in the indictment as people to whom Libby talked. But they were not named.
“Mr. Libby’s story that he was at the tail end of a chain of phone calls, passing on from one reporter what he heard from another, was not true. It was false,” Fitzgerald said. “He was at the beginning of the chain of the phone calls, the first official to disclose this information outside the government to a reporter, and … he lied about it afterwards under oath and repeatedly.”
In a statement released by his attorney, Joseph Tate, Libby said he had conducted himself “honorably and truthfully” and he regretted his resignation.
“I am confident that at the end of this process, I will be completely and totally exonerated,” he said.
Fitzgerald said the term of the federal grand jury that handed down Friday’s indictment had expired, but that he could use another to finish his work, if need be.
The 22-page indictment and the prosecutor at his hour-long news conference offered a rare inside look into some of the inner workings of the White House, particularly involving the war with Iraq.
The charges say that at one point, a month before Plame’s CIA job became public on July 14, 2003, Libby met with an unidentified CIA briefer and “expressed displeasure that CIA officials were making comments to reporters critical of the vice president’s office.”
On another occasion, two days before Plame was outed, the indictment said that Libby had discussed with the vice president and others aboard Air Force Two how to respond to “pending media inquiries.”
Repeatedly, Fitzgerald underscored the serious nature of the charges against Libby and the national security issues he said were center stage.
“At a time when we need our spy agencies to have people work there,” the prosecutor said, “I think just the notion that somebody’s identity could be compromised lightly, to me, compromises the ability to recruit people and say, ‘Come work for us.’ “
At the crux of the controversy surrounding the disclosure of Plame as a CIA operative is a 2002 trip by her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, to Niger at the behest of the CIA to check reports that Iraq had sought uranium there for nuclear weapons. He found no substance to the reports, he said, and reported that back to Washington.
But in his State of the Union address nearly a year later on Jan. 28, 2003, Bush offered his now-famous 16-word assertion, since retracted, that: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Less than two months later, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq to thwart what he had repeatedly declared was Saddam’s intent to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Angry at the administration’s rationale for war, Wilson – who supported Bush’s 2004 Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry – began speaking privately about his trip to Niger and, finally, went public on July 6, 2003, in a guest column in the New York Times and an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Eight days later, syndicated columnist Robert Novak identified Wilson’s wife, Plame, as a CIA “operative on weapons of mass destruction.” And a brouhaha erupted with Wilson and others suggesting the Bush administration had leaked his wife’s identity, compromising her ability to work undercover, in retaliation for his criticism.
Libby, who started at the White House nearly five years ago, was the vice president’s closest aide, usually at his side from early morning until day’s end. His reach was wide and extended deep into the Oval Office.
An assistant to the president as well, he was a regular at senior-level White House staff meetings.
He was, for instance, one of those the president had searching for candidates for vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court – along with Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and legal counsel Harriet Miers. Libby was a fixture, too, in the president’s war council that fashioned the invasion of Iraq and the rationale for it.
Known around the White House sometimes derisively as “The Little Man,” Libby was obsessed with Wilson’s running critique of the administration, ordering aides to monitor his every word.
Rove’s name surfaced as a possible leaker shortly after Novak disclosed Plame’s identity in his July 14, 2003, column. And the next month, Wilson escalated the brewing controversy when he said he was keen to “see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.”
Later, White House press secretary Scott McClellan dismissed suggestions of Rove’s involvement as “ridiculous,” saying both Rove and Libby had assured him in private conversations that they were not involved. But, increasingly, since the Justice Department named Fitzgerald the special prosecutor in December 2003, McClellan became more guarded in his public remarks. Eventually, he, along with the president and top administration officials, refused to comment.
In his sweeping inquiry, Fitzgerald left no stone unturned.
Phone records, Secret Service logs, e-mails, memos, even some manifests for Air Force One were gathered. And one witness after another, including those from the highest levels of the administration on down, formed a steady parade to the grand jury.