Libby Pleads Not Guilty to Lying in Leak Case
Six days after being indicted, former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he repeatedly lied to investigators and to a federal grand jury in the CIA leak case.
Libby formally entered his plea during a 10-minute arraignment, accompanied by a new team of defense lawyers and his wife. On crutches because of a foot injury, he hobbled to the lectern and spoke to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in a clear but quiet voice.
“With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty,” said Libby, who resigned last week as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney and assistant to President Bush.
Libby waived his right to have the 22-page indictment read in open court. Later, he was fingerprinted and photographed and released on his own recognizance.
The hearing was Libby’s first court appearance since he was indicted. The case has cast a shadow over the Bush administration and fueled debate over the intelligence it used to justify the war in Iraq.
Libby’s defense team includes two prominent criminal lawyers, one of whom raised the possibility of “protracted litigation.” Prosecutors indicated that the volumes of classified information they had unearthed in their investigation could mean that at least some of the proceedings would be held out of public view. Walton scheduled a Feb. 3 status conference with attorneys in the case. He did not set a trial date.
After the arraignment, one of Libby’s lawyers, Theodore V. Wells Jr., said: “He has declared that he intends to fight the charges in the indictment ... and he wants a jury trial.”
Wells declined to respond to questions, saying he would not try the case in the press. “Mr. Libby intends to clear his good name through the judicial process,” he said.
Libby, 55, faces charges of perjury, making false statements to federal agents and obstruction of justice. He could be sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison if convicted of all five charges.
The indictment followed Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s 22-month investigation into who leaked covert CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity to the media in the summer of 2003.
Plame is married to Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador who had accused the administration in a July 6, 2003, newspaper op-ed article of twisting prewar intelligence on Iraq. Eight days later, syndicated columnist Robert Novak disclosed the identity of Wilson’s wife.
Fitzgerald has said his investigation is not complete; White House political advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove has said through his lawyer that he may still be charged.
Fitzgerald told Walton that it would take the government two weeks to present its evidence against Libby at trial.
Prosecutors are required to give the accused any evidence that could be exculpatory. Fitzgerald said at the hearing that his office would begin that process starting next week, but cautioned that it would be slowed because of the amount of classified information.
He added that defense lawyers would also have to obtain security clearances to see some of the information.
Libby’s lawyers indicated they were in no hurry to see the case go to trial.
William Jeffress Jr., one of the lawyers, told Walton there might be “protracted litigation” about access to classified information, as well as 1st Amendment issues. He did not elaborate.
Daniel Richman, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York and a former federal prosecutor, said that in cases involving classified information, it was a “classic defense tactic” to attack the government for withholding documents from the defense.
Some observers speculated that the defense might assert that Plame’s CIA affiliation was widely known before the leak, and that revealing her identity caused no damage. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, would likely try to keep the case narrowly focused on whether Libby told the truth to investigators.
“Fitzgerald is going to present this as a rather simple case that does not have national security overtones,” Richman said. “The Libby strategy will be to focus on the complexity of all of this and how these charges implicate a far broader range of facts.”
Legal experts said the defense also seemed to be foreshadowing a fight over the testimony of reporters who were expected to be the central witnesses in the case, and over access to their notes and other information. They also said that Libby’s lawyers might be preparing to argue that the prosecution was in effect an attempt to criminalize constitutionally protected speech.
Libby’s alleged crimes are rooted in what he told FBI agents and the grand jury about conversations he had with three journalists in the days before Plame’s identity was publicly revealed.
The indictment said that Libby had learned about Plame’s CIA affiliation from sources in the government, including Cheney. But when he talked to investigators, Libby said that he had learned Plame’s identity from NBC’s Tim Russert, according to the indictment.
Libby is also charged with lying about the circumstances of conversations related to Plame that he had with two other journalists, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times.
Libby’s lawyers previously signaled that they intended to argue that inconsistencies in his testimony were the result of a hectic work schedule and that, at most, he was guilty of memory lapses. Some legal experts said the journalists’ credibility could become a major issue.
“We are going to have an extended swearing contest between journalists and Mr. Libby about who was telling the truth,” predicted Jane Kirtley, a media law expert at the University of Minnesota.
Other experts said the defense could attempt to subpoena information about the journalists’ reputations for fairness and accuracy, such as information about complaints from readers and editors, as a way of testing their credibility as witnesses in court.
Wells and Jeffress are new additions to Libby’s defense team.
Wells once served as national treasurer for Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign. He has won acquittals for such figures as former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan.
Wells represented former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) during an investigation of potential campaign finance irregularities that was eventually dropped. More recently, he has been a lead counsel defending the tobacco industry in a racketeering case brought by the Justice Department.
Jeffress, who once won a Supreme Court ruling for former President Nixon involving public access to the Watergate tapes, is a partner in the Washington office of the Houston-based law firm of Baker Botts, where Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III is a senior partner.
Jeffress also represented Mary Matalin, a former advisor to Cheney, when she testified before the grand jury in the leak case.