Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was convicted Tuesday of lying and obstructing a leak investigation that reached into the highest levels of the Bush administration.
Libby is the highest-ranking White House official to be convicted of a felony since the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s. The case brought new attention to the Bush administration's much-criticized handling of weapons of mass destruction intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The verdict culminated a nearly four-year investigation into how CIA official Valerie Plame's name was leaked to reporters in 2003. The trial revealed that top members of the administration were eager to discredit Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who accused the administration of doctoring prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Libby, who was once Cheney's most trusted adviser and an assistant to President Bush, was expressionless as the jury verdict was announced on the 10th day of deliberations. His wife, Harriet Grant, choked out a sob and lowered her head.
Libby could face up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced June 5 but under federal sentencing guidelines is likely to face far less. Defense attorneys immediately promised to ask for a new trial or appeal the conviction.
Cheney said late Tuesday he was disappointed with the verdict.
"I am saddened for Scooter and his family," Cheney said. "Scooter has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction through many years of public service."
“We have every confidence Mr. Libby ultimately will be vindicated,” defense attorney Theodore Wells told a throng of reporters. “We believe Mr. Libby is totally innocent and that he didn’t do anything wrong.”
Libby did not speak to reporters.
No more charges
“The results are actually sad,” Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said. “It’s sad that we had a situation where a high-level official person who worked in the office of the vice president obstructed justice and lied under oath. We wish that it had not happened, but it did.”
Fitzgerald said the CIA leak investigation was now inactive. “I do not expect to file any additional charges,” he said. “We’re all going back to our day jobs.”
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said Bush watched news of the verdict on TV in the Oval Office. Perino said the president respected the jury’s verdict but “was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family.”
Perino said “I would not agree” with any characterization of the verdict as embarrassing for the White House.
“I think that any administration that has to go through a prolonged news story that is unpleasant and one that is difficult — when you’re under the constraints and the policy of not commenting on an ongoing criminal matter — that can be very frustrating,” she said.
Libby was convicted of one count of obstruction, two counts of perjury and one count of lying to the FBI about how he learned Plame’s identity and whom he told. Prosecutors said he learned about Plame from Cheney and others, discussed her name with reporters and, fearing prosecution, made up a story to make those discussions seem innocuous.
Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards told Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball" that Libby "absolutely should not be pardoned."
"This is a situation where he has been convicted of a crime committed as part of his official responsibilities and working for the vice president," he said Tuesday. "He absolutely should not be pardoned. There should be accountability."
‘It seemed very unlikely’
Libby said he told investigators his honest recollections and blamed any misstatements on a faulty memory. He was acquitted of one count of lying to the FBI about his conversation with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper.
One juror who spoke to reporters outside court said the jury had 34 poster-size pages filled with information they distilled from the trial testimony. They discerned that Libby was told about Plame at least nine times, and they did not buy the argument that he had forgotten all about it.
“Even if he forgot that someone told him about Mrs. Wilson, who had told him, it seemed very unlikely he would not have remembered about Mrs. Wilson,” the juror, Denis Collins, said.
Collins, a former Washington Post reporter, said jurors wanted to hear from others involved in the case, including Bush political adviser Karl Rove, who was one of two sources for the original leak. Defense attorneys originally said both Libby and Cheney would be witnesses, and Rove was on the potential witness list.
“I will say there was a tremendous amount of sympathy for Mr. Libby on the jury. It was said a number of times, ‘What are we doing with this guy here? Where’s Rove? Where are these other guys?”’ Collins said. “I’m not saying we didn’t think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of. It seemed like he was, as Mr. Wells put it, he was the fall guy.”
‘A callous disregard’
Reaction to the conviction was swift in Congress.
“The testimony unmistakably revealed — at the highest levels of the Bush administration — a callous disregard in handling sensitive national security information and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid welcomed the jury’s verdict and urged a pledge from Bush that he would not pardon Libby. Before the trial began, the Justice Department said it had no pardon file active for Libby.
“It’s about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics,” Reid said.
Although Libby was the one convicted, Reid said, “his trial revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney’s role in this sordid affair. Now President Bush must pledge not to pardon Libby for his criminal conduct.”
White House sidesteps pardon issue
Asked about that, Perino said, “I’m not commenting on a hypothetical situation” and added that “I’m aware of no such request.”
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ordered a pre-sentencing report be completed by May 15. Judges use such reports to help determine sentences.
Libby faced two counts of perjury, two counts of lying to the FBI and one count of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors said he discussed Plame’s name with reporters and, fearing prosecution, made up a story to make those discussions seem innocuous.
Libby’s defense team said he learned about Plame from Cheney, forgot about it, then learned it again a month later from NBC newsman Tim Russert of NBC’s “.” Anything he told reporters about Plame, Libby said, was just chatter and rumors, not official government information.
Fitzgerald said that was a lie. But Libby’s defense team had argued that it would be unfair to convict Libby in a case where so many witnesses changed their stories or had memory problems.
Wells said he would ask the court for a new trial by April 13. Such requests are common following criminal convictions.
“Despite our disappointment in the jurors’ verdict, we believe in the American justice system and we believe in the jury system,” Wells told reporters outside the federal courthouse. “We intend to file a motion for a new trial, and if that is denied, we will appeal the conviction. We have every confidence that ultimately Mr. Libby will be exonerated. ... We intend to keep fighting to establish his innocence.”
‘No citizen is above the law’
“We take great comfort that no citizen is above the law,” Wilson said in a conference call with reporters.
Wilson and Plame have sued Libby and Cheney, as well as White House advisor Rove and former State Department official Richard Armitage, in federal court.
Attorneys at the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which brought the lawsuit, also praised the conviction and Fitzgerald’s team.
Acquittal on one count
The jury acquitted Libby of one count of lying to the FBI about his conversation with former Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper.
Said Fitzgerald: “Any lie under oath is serious. We cannot tolerate perjury. The truth is what drives our judicial system. If people don’t come forward and tell truth, we have no hope of making judicial system work.”
During the trial, prosecutors said Libby made up a ludicrous lie to save his job during the CIA leak investigation by telling investigators he’d forgotten Cheney told him about the CIA status of Wilson’s wife. Cheney had passed the information to Libby more than a month before Plame’s identity was outed by conservative columnist Robert Novak.
Libby told investigators he learned of Plame’s identity from NBC’s Tim Russert, saying that he’d forgotten at the time he talked to the reporter that he’d been told of it earlier by Cheney.
Russert testified he never told Libby about Wilson’s wife, and he underwent a grueling cross-examination as Libby’s legal team tried to discredit Russert’s testimony.