Libby indictment a body blow to a struggling White House

Charges focus on investigation, not actual leak of CIA agent's identity.

The indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, has dealt a body blow to an already-struggling Bush White House.

Until recently, "Scooter" Libby was hardly a household name. But on Friday, when Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald laid out a five-count indictment against the senior official in the CIA leak case, Mr. Libby took his place in the gallery of powerful Washington figures who have landed in legal jeopardy. Just before the federal grand jury's charges were unveiled, he resigned from his White House post.

Libby, of course, may not be found guilty of any of the counts: one for obstruction of justice, two for perjury, and two for making false statements to FBI agents. But for now, his case has put a stain at the heart of the Bush administration, which came to office promising to restore honor and integrity to the White House. By coincidence, the indictment also came during the week in which the 2,000th American died in Iraq - in a case that has fanned the controversy over the administration's rationale for the 2003 invasion.

The news from Mr. Fitzgerald could have been worse. President Bush's political right-hand man, Karl Rove, had been informed he may be indicted, but wasn't. Still, he's not out of the woods yet. Fitzgerald's investigation into the allegedly unauthorized exposure of a CIA agent's identity continues. At his press conference Friday, the special counsel said the "substantial bulk" of the inquiry is finished, though it is unclear where the probe may yet lead.

What is clear is that Washington has its newest example of the old saw, "It's not the crime, it's the coverup." The five counts Libby faces all center on actions that Fitzgerald says interfered with the investigation, not on the core question - whether Libby took part in the "outing" of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

"That is almost always the case in the major Washington scandals," says Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University. "It is a big message to Washington officials that if you only would come clean you would probably be OK. It is the lying that creates the crime. And usually there is no underlying crime at all."

Still, legal scholars agreed with Fitzgerald that the charges returned by the grand jury are serious - and Republicans needed look no further than their own statements during President Clinton's legal travails to be reminded about the seriousness of lying under oath. Last Sunday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas came under fire when she referred dismissively to perjury as a "technicality," and backed off that argument.

"It is a felony; anybody who is facing these kind of charges is in trouble," says Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University and former federal prosecutor.

For the five counts, Libby faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines, though if found guilty, he would probably face a much lesser punishment, from probation or house arrest to five years in prison and a fine, legal analysts say. Libby could also avoid a trial by making a plea bargain, but analysts don't see that as likely.

Some analysts say there is the possibility of a presidential pardon. "Ultimately, President Bush is going to pardon Libby anyway, if he is ever convicted, so the bottom line is this may be all for naught," says Joseph diGenova, a Washington lawyer and former US attorney.

Some Republicans focused on the fact that Fitzgerald was unable to secure an indictment for the disclosure of classified data, even though, in his explanation of the case, he made clear that he believes Ms. Plame's employment with the CIA was classified until July 14, 2003. On that date, columnist Robert Novak published a piece referring to her as a CIA operative. One of the remaining mysteries of the case is who originally leaked to Mr. Novak. That person is identified in the indictment only as "Official A."

Ms. Plame's husband, Joe Wilson, had published a newspaper column on July 6, 2003, describing a trip to Niger he had taken at the behest of the CIA to investigate whether Iraq had tried to purchase uranium, presumably to make nuclear weapons. Mr. Wilson accused the Bush administration of 'twisting" intelligence to justify invading Iraq. But even before Wilson's column appeared, Libby had begun to research the former diplomat's trip and discuss the fact that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Libby's motive in discussing this information with journalists remains a matter of speculation.

The Libby indictment registered high on the political Richter scale. Washington over the years has had its share of indictments, but rarely of someone this close to the Oval Office. To refer to him as just the vice president's chief of staff understates his power. He was the closest aide to the most powerful vice president in history, a neocon stalwart who helped shape US foreign policy and pushed for the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In a statement Friday, Mr. Cheney called Libby "one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known."

The Libby indictment capped what had to be one the worst weeks of Bush's presidency, despite some bright spots. Bush's nomination of a new chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, was well-received, but quickly overtaken by the next bit of bad news. The crossing of the symbolic threshold of 2,000 American deaths in Iraq sparked a wave of coverage of the toll the Iraq war has taken, even as a final tally also showed the passage of the new Iraqi Constitution. On Thursday, Bush's embattled Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers, withdrew from her nomination as conservative opposition to her was beginning to solidify. And then on Friday came the long-dreaded indictment. The timing of the Miers withdrawal was seen as no accident: It allowed the fractured Republican coalition to reunite just in time to rally behind their besieged president.

Bush is expected to announce his next high court nominee soon, an event that will create another news point far from Libby. If he makes a choice that satisfies his conservative base but does not inflame the left, he can show the political world he's back on his game - but analysts are hard put to identify such a candidate.

Still, Libby's legal woes are sure to remain in the news for months to come - probably right up to the 2006 midterms, an uncomfortable political fact for Republicans seeking election or reelection.

Many questions remain in the Libby case. His indictment "basically for participating in a coverup I think inevitably raises the question in people's minds: Who was he trying to protect and what was he trying to protect?" says Joel K. Goldstein, author of a book on the vice presidency and a law professor at St. Louis University.

Presidential scholars also marveled at the historic nature of Friday's indictment, looking back through the decades to past examples of high-level legal woes and how presidents have coped.

"What you have with Bush is a double-whammy, the odor of Vietnam and the smell of Watergate," says historian Robert Dallek.

Others detect a scent not quite so powerful, in part because Rove has not been indicted and because Bush has not been directly implicated. "It's less than Watergate, because I don't see anything that points a dagger at the president, to the point that he can't finish his four years," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. "But whether he can pull out of this succession of difficulties is hard to say."

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