WASHINGTON — At an already difficult time for the Bush administration, the felony conviction of a former top aide to Vice President Cheney has cast a pall over the White House.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Mr. Cheney's onetime chief of staff, was convicted Tuesday on four of the five counts he faced involving perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to the FBI during a federal investigation into the suspected leak of a covert CIA agent's identity.
Whether that CIA employee, Valerie Plame, was in fact a covert operative at the time her identity was publicly revealed in a 2003 column by Robert Novak remains a matter of dispute. Ms. Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, believe it was and are suing Libby, Cheney, and presidential aide Karl Rove in civil court.
On the criminal counts, Mr. Libby faces up to 25 years in prison, and will be sentenced on June 5. However, the former official is expected to receive a shorter sentence, under federal sentencing guidelines, and will not be required to report to prison pending further legal action. Libby's legal team is requesting a new trial by April 13, and if denied, will appeal Tuesday's verdict.
The guilty verdicts, which were announced in the 10th day of jury deliberations, came as yet another blow to a White House struggling to turn around the central project of its six-year tenure, the Iraq war. On news websites Tuesday afternoon, the headline on Libby appeared near other stories on dozens of Shiite pilgrims killed Tuesday in Iraq.
Though the Libby trial centered on whether the aide had committed perjury and obstruction of justice during a federal investigation, the Iraq war – and the role of the vice president's office in defending the Bush administration's actions in it – provided the backdrop.
The Plame investigation sprang from a 16-word sentence in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, in which he stated that Iraq was attempting to purchase uranium from Africa. In July 2003, Ambassador Wilson wrote a column stating that he had found no evidence of such Iraqi attempts and accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to justify going to war in Iraq.
According to the argument laid out against Libby by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Cheney's office – and Libby in particular – swung into action to discredit Wilson. Libby's defense team argued that the senior aide did not deliberately make false statements under oath, but rather was a very busy man who could not be expected to remember everything he had said and to whom and when.
After the trial, jurors speaking for the cameras made clear that they believed the Wilson matter and his harsh criticism of the Iraq war were a central concern in Cheney's office and that Libby's claims of memory problems were not credible. Still, one juror said he and his fellow jurors agreed with the defense argument that Libby had been hung out to dry by Mr. Rove and other more senior officials.
"It seemed like ... he was the fall guy," juror Denis Collins said in an ad hoc press conference after the verdict. But, he added, that point did not negate Libby's actions.
Libby's criminal conviction represents a rare moment in American history, the conviction of someone for actions taken during their time as a White House official. Over the years, top administration officials have been indicted, and most of them acquitted, but the last time a White House official was found guilty was during the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan administration.
"This is just another blow to the Bush administration," says Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "If it were alone, it wouldn't amount to that much. But it comes with circumstances in Iraq, and the Walter Reed [scandal on treatment of Iraq and Afghan war veterans] feeding into the Katrina sense of an administration not caring."
The Libby news also comes amid new polling data showing Bush's job approval ratings down in the low 30s, Dr. Jillson notes. In the latest Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans called sending US troops to Iraq a mistake, the highest such figure since September 2005.
Before the Libby verdict, public speculation had centered on the possibility that a conviction might embolden Mr. Fitzgerald to pursue legal action against Cheney himself. During his closing arguments, Fitzgerald spoke of a "cloud over the vice president" and about how "they" – alluding to Libby and Cheney – were using the fact of Plame's CIA employment to try to discredit Wilson.
But Tuesday, speaking to reporters after the verdict, Fitzgerald called the investigation finished and said he had no plans to pursue any other officials, unless new facts came to light.
Another key institution embroiled in the Libby trial was the press, and in fact, it was testimony from NBC newsman Tim Russert that seemed to dig Libby's legal grave. Libby had claimed he learned of Plame's identity from Mr. Russert, but Russert testified that the two had never discussed Plame. Jurors later said they found Russert's testimony credible.
But Washington journalists are not cheering that Russert appeared the victor in head-to-head legal combat with Libby. For all the journalists involved in the case – including former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and former Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper – appearing on a witness stand, under oath, discussing conversations with usually confidential sources is not a welcome circumstance.
Democratic politicians, meanwhile, sought to turn the Libby verdict to political advantage.
"It's appalling to think that while President Bush had a high level team in place to sell the Iraq War and viciously smear its critics, it has not given that same attention to plan for postwar Iraq, providing the proper equipment for our troops or ensuring that our troops and veterans receive the care they deserve," said Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean in a statement.