WASHINGTON — Lawyers for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby wrapped their client in the flag Tuesday, but the tactic didn’t work.
In the end, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said Libby’s lies in the Valerie Plame affair outweighed his public service, from the Cold War to the Iraq war.
Walton sentenced Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff to 2½ years in prison for lying and obstructing the CIA leak investigation — the probe that showed a White House obsessed with criticism of its decision to go to war.
Libby, the highest-ranking White House official sentenced to prison since the Iran-Contra affair, asked for leniency. There were testimonial letters from officials dating back decades. Attorney Theodore Wells told Walton that recognizing exceptional service “is not to give someone a break.”
Walton was unpersuaded. Libby was Cheney’s national security adviser, he said, and had an obligation to make sure Plame’s CIA status was in the open before talking about it with reporters.
“He surely did not make any effort to find out” whether she was covert and “for whatever reason, he chose to reveal this person’s name to several reporters,” Walton said.
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of up to three years, while Libby had asked for probation and no time in prison.
Libby’s supporters noted that he wasn’t charged with the alleged crime Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald set out to investigate, disclosing Plame’s CIA identity.
Walton, his voice rising, told Libby’s legal team that the CIA believed disclosure was a serious matter, the Justice Department opened an investigation, Libby lied to investigators “and you seem to be saying” none of that should apply at sentencing.
Said Libby attorney William Jeffress: “To have this sentenced as if there was an offense of murder is simply irrational.”
Walton’s verdict: “Mr. Libby failed to meet the bar. For whatever reason, he got off course.”
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No date was set immediately for Libby to report to prison.
Reaction from the White House was still supportive of Libby — but somber.
President Bush, traveling in Europe, said through a spokesman that he “felt terrible for the family,” especially Libby’s wife and children. Libby and his wife, Harriet Grant, have two school-age children, a son and a daughter.
Cheney said he hoped his former top aide would prevail on appeal.
Libby did not apologize and has maintained his innocence.
“It is respectfully my hope that the court will consider, along with the jury verdict, my whole life,” he said in brief remarks in court before the sentencing, his first public statement about the case since his indictment in 2005.
A Republican stalwart, he drew more than 150 letters of support from military commanders and diplomats who praised his government service from the Cold War through the early days of the Iraq war.
He was convicted in March of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters about Plame. Fitzgerald questioned Bush and Cheney in a probe that became a symbol of the administration’s deepening problems.
Cheney offers words of support
“Mr. Libby was the poster child for all that has gone wrong in this terrible war,” defense attorney Wells said. “He has fallen from public grace. It is a tragic fall, a tragic fall.”
Cheney, looking to Libby’s appeal, said, “Speaking as friends, we hope that our system will return a final result consistent with what we know of this fine man.”
Defense attorneys sought to have the sentence delayed until appeals run out. A delay also would give Bush more time to consider calls from Libby’s allies to pardon the longtime aide.
Walton said he saw no reason to put the sentence on hold but agreed to consider it. He scheduled a hearing for a week from Thursday.
Libby and Fitzgerald left court without speaking to reporters.
Among Libby’s supporting letter writers were former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Libby’s attorneys noted that Fitzgerald never charged anyone with leaking Plame’s identity, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage or White House political adviser Karl Rove, the original sources of the leak.
Walton, a Bush nominee who served in the White House as deputy drug director under Bush’s father, said public officials in particular had a duty to testify honestly. His voice rising at times, he said the leak investigation was a serious one and obstructing it deserved a serious penalty.
He fined Libby $250,000 and placed him on two years probation after his prison sentence expires. There is no parole in the federal system, but Libby would be eligible for release after two years.
Ex-CIA agent pleased with sentence
Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, applauded the sentence, and, though Fitzgerald has said his investigation is complete, they urged Libby to cooperate with authorities.
“As Mr. Fitzgerald has said, a cloud remains over the vice president,” Wilson said.
It was Cheney who revealed Plame’s identity to Libby in June 2003 after her husband began questioning the administration’s prewar intelligence. Several other officials testified that they, too, discussed the CIA operative with Libby as Wilson’s criticism mounted.
Libby said he forgot those conversations and was surprised to learn about Plame a month later from NBC newsman Tim Russert. Russert, the government’s star witness at trial, testified the two men never discussed Plame. Fitzgerald said Libby concocted the Russert story to shield him from prosecution for improperly handling classified information.
Though the trial is over, the legal fight over the leak continues. Plame and Wilson are suing Libby, Cheney and other senior Bush administration officials, accusing them of violating their privacy rights. A judge is considering whether to dismiss the lawsuit.
Plame is also suing the CIA for allegedly holding up publication of her memoir, in which she wants to discuss details about her 20-year career at the intelligence agency. CIA officials say the material she wants to publish is classified.
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