WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff pleaded not guilty to a five-count felony indictment Thursday in the CIA leak case, signaling a protracted court battle that is sure to prolong debate about the White House’s prewar use of intelligence on Iraq.
I. Lewis Libby appeared at his arraignment with trial lawyers Ted Wells and William Jeffress, known for their ability to win jury acquittals for high-profile clients in white-collar criminal cases.
“With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty,” Libby told U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, a former prosecutor who has spent two decades as a judge in the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, three Democratic congressmen on Thursday asked Cheney to testify on Capitol Hill about the disclosure of the covert CIA officer’s identity, saying “there are many wide-ranging questions about your involvement.”
Maurice Hinchey of New York, Henry Waxman of California and John Conyers of Michigan asked why Cheney’s office was gathering information about Valerie Plame, the wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson in 2003; whether the vice president directed Libby to speak to the news media about Plame; and whether Cheney was aware Libby was doing so.
Cheney under fire
The congressmen also asked Cheney whether he was aware the administration’s claims that Iraq was seeking uranium from the African nation of Niger were false, at a time officials including President Bush were using such assertions as justification for going to war.
In response, Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said that the vice president would cooperate with the Justice Department as the criminal investigation of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald moves forward.
Cheney said following Libby’s indictment last Friday that it would be inappropriate to comment on the charges or any facts relating to the proceeding.
Cheney and other top White House officials could be called to testify if Libby goes to trial. Libby is charged with obstruction of justice, two counts of lying to the FBI and two counts of committing perjury before a federal grand jury.
Recovering from a foot injury, Libby leaned his crutches against a lectern from which lawyers normally question witnesses or address the court.
‘He wants to clear his good name’
“He has declared to the world that he is innocent,” Wells said outside the courthouse after the 10-minute session. “He wants to clear his good name, and he wants a jury trial.”
Former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson accused the administration of twisting intelligence in the run-up to the war to exaggerate the Iraqi threat from weapons of mass destruction.
Wilson made his accusation after a CIA-sponsored trip to Africa in which he said he found no evidence to support the allegation that Iraq had an agreement to acquire uranium from Niger.
Bush told the nation on Jan. 28, 2003, that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The Bush administration later said the passage should have been taken out of the president’s address.
In court in Washington, Libby waived his right to a speedy trial. It will take his legal team three months to get security clearances and to examine classified information that the prosecution must produce to the defense.
Jeffress said there may be disputes over the use of classified information and that there may be First Amendment issues. He was referring to the fact that journalists are among the case’s central witnesses.
Legal experts say there could be demands for reporters’ notes and Libby’s lawyers could demand the government turn over an extensive amount of classified information from the CIA about Plame’s covert status.
Questions about where information originated
The indictment says Libby got information about Plame’s identity in June 2003 from Cheney, the State Department and the CIA, then spread it to New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper. Libby told FBI agents and a federal grand jury that his information had come from NBC reporter Tim Russert.
Russert says he and Libby never discussed Wilson or his wife.
The exposure of Plame’s CIA identity by conservative columnist Robert Novak triggered the probe that resulted in Libby’s indictment.
The next court date for Libby is Feb. 3.
Wells won acquittal for former Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy and successfully defended a Tennessee financier in the fundraising controversy surrounding the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign of 1996. Wells was part of the successful defense in a criminal trial of former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan and other corporate executives.
“If your intention is to go to trial, you turn to Ted Wells,” said former Independent Counsel Robert Ray.
Jeffress is from the firm Baker Botts, where Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III is a senior partner.
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