The indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. sets the stage for an extraordinary Washington drama in which some of the city’s best-known journalists, including NBC’s Tim Russert, would be prosecution witnesses at a public trial against a one-time powerful White House official.
The charges yesterday include obstruction of justice and perjury. Those counts are based on conversations Mr. Libby had in July 2003 with Mr. Russert, Time magazine’s Matt Cooper and the New York Times’ Judith Miller.
To get criminal convictions, it appears a jury will have to believe the recollections of those three reporters over Mr. Libby, who vowed to fight the charges after resigning yesterday as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
The jury would also have to decide that Mr. Libby, a lawyer, intentionally misstated the conversations to a federal grand jury when he said he learned of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame from reporters, not inside the government. There are also notes of those interviews that likely would be put into evidence.
But the indictment does not charge Mr. Libby with the underlining accusation that began special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s probe two years ago: That Mr. Libby and other administration officials illegally disclosed the identify of Mrs. Plame, the wife of Iraq war critic and former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Fitzgerald was vague about why no charge was brought. He spoke of trying to prove whether a baseball pitcher intentionally throws at a batter. This analogy seemed to indicate he could not prove that Mr. Libby intentionally exposed Mrs. Plame to do her harm, as a law designed to protect covert agents requires.
There is no indication in the indictment that either Mr. Cheney or President Bush knew of or encouraged Mr. Libby to talk about Mrs. Plame to the press.
Under oath, Mr. Libby testified before the grand jury that Mr. Russert asked him whether he knew that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and stated that all reporters knew her status.
In fact, the indictment charges, Mr. Libby knew Mr. Russert never made such statements.
A Fitzgerald press statement called Mr. Libby’s grand jury testimony “materially false and intentionally misleading.”
“In fact,” the prosecutor said, “Russert did not ask Libby if Libby knew that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, nor did Russert tell Libby that all the reporters knew it, and at the time of their conversations, Libby was well aware that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.”
It charges that Mr. Libby had learned of Mrs. Plame’s CIA job status, which was classified, the previous June from government officials, including Mr. Cheney. The vice president told him on June 12, a month before Mr. Libby talked to the three reporters, that Mrs. Plame worked in the agency’s counter-proliferation division.
Why was Mr. Libby so interested in Mr. Wilson and his wife? Because Mr. Wilson was leaking the results of his trip to Niger the previously year. He was sent there by the CIA to determine whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein regime had tried to buy uranium from Niger to build atomic weapons.
Mr. Wilson anonymously told reporters he found no such evidence, undercutting an administration argument for going to war to oust Saddam. Since capturing Baghdad in April 2003, the U.S. had failed to find stocks of weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Wilson’s leaks to the press made it sound as if the administration ignored his pre-invasion report.
Mr. Libby wanted to find out why the CIA would send a Bush critic and Democratic partisan to Niger, instead of a more objective investigator.
The answer he got in a number of conversations with government officials that June was that Mrs. Plame arranged for her husband to be selected.
The next month, Mr. Libby had to decide whether to get this information to the press to rebut accusations that Mr. Cheney authorized Mr. Wilson’s trip. Mr. Wilson implied that was the case in his July 6 op-ed piece published the New York Times.
That same month, CIA Director George J. Tenet said Mr. Wilson’s report “did not resolve whether Iraq was or was not seeking uranium from abroad.” A year later, in July 2004, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that Mr. Wilson’s Niger report did not change any analysts’ assessments of the suspected Iraq-Niger uranium deal.
Mr. Libby also testified in March before the grand jury that he told Time magazine’s Mr. Cooper that other reporters were saying Mrs. Plame worked for the CIA but he did not know whether it was true. That same day, July 12, he told the same thing to the Times’ Miss Miller, according to his grand jury testimony. Mr. Fitzgerald said those statements were false.
The indictment does not say who leaked her identify to columnist Robert Novak. His July 2003 column named Mrs. Plame for the first time in public, quoting two anonymous administration officials. The column triggered the Fitzgerald probe. The indictment says Mr. Novak had discussed Mrs. Plame with a White House person identified only as “official A.” That official is believed to be White House political adviser Karl Rove, who remains under investigation by Mr. Fitzgerald’s office, but was not charged yesterday.
The indictment charges Mr. Libby with five counts: obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements. If convicted of all charges, he would face a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and a $1.25 million fine.
The perjury charges stem from his discussions with Mr. Russert and Mr. Cooper. The false statement charges relate to interviews he gave to FBI agents.