LIBBY'S GUILT IN CIA LEAK CASE A SETBACK FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Times Staff Writers

The guilty verdicts Tuesday against former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby made him the first high-level White House official convicted of a crime since the Iran-Contra scandal 20 years ago, and marked the latest fallout from the administration's handling of the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was found guilty by a jury on four of five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice and faces a maximum of 25 years in prison. But because of federal sentencing guidelines, he is expected to get much less -- perhaps two years. In addition, Libby could be fined as much as $250,000 for each guilty count.

Sentencing is set for June 5.

Libby remains free on a personal recognizance bond, and his lawyer said he would appeal. "We have every confidence that ultimately Mr. Libby will be vindicated," said Theodore V. Wells Jr. "We believe that he is totally innocent, and we intend to keep fighting."

Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald said he was gratified by the jury's verdict. "Any lie under oath is serious," he said. "It's obviously a serious matter in a case where there's a national security investigation."

Libby was charged with lying to investigators about his role in a White House campaign to discredit a critic of the administration -- an effort that led to the exposure of the critic's wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame.

One juror said the panel did not believe Libby's claim that he learned of Plame's identity from a journalist, when evidence showed he had discussed her in several White House meetings before that.

"The primary thing that convinced us was his conversation with [NBC newsman Tim] Russert," said Denis Collins, speaking for the 11-person panel. Collins said Libby was told nine times about Plame before he talked to Russert.

The verdicts Tuesday appeared to close the book on the CIA leak case, in which no one was ever charged with the crime of exposing Plame. Fitzgerald said he did not expect to file additional charges.

"We're all going back to our day jobs," he said.

The conviction of such a high-ranking White House official was one more setback for the Bush administration, already laboring under low approval ratings, public impatience with the war in Iraq and a new Democratic majority in Congress.

Democrats immediately used the verdicts to lambaste the White House.

"It's about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid and other Democrats also issued preemptive warnings against the possibility of a presidential pardon for Libby. "President Bush should now pledge that he will not pardon Scooter Libby," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said President Bush "respected the jury's verdict and was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family." Vice President Dick Cheney said he was "very disappointed" with the verdict, and lauded Libby's "many years of public service."

The verdict is bound to fuel further debate over the wisdom of prosecuting government officials for leaking information to reporters.

Such investigations have failed in the past because prosecutors have been unable to get the cooperation of the journalists receiving the leaks. Fitzgerald subpoenaed reporters for their testimony, putting one of them, then-New York Times correspondent Judith Miller, in jail for 85 days until she agreed to talk about Libby.

Fitzgerald justified the tactics because of the gravity of the potential crime and the possibility that the unmasking of a CIA operative would lead to a breach in national security.

The judgment of the 11-member Libby jury -- reduced from 12 after a retired museum curator was dismissed last week for having unauthorized contacts about the case -- came on the 10th day of deliberations and after a month of testimony.

Stoic reaction

Seated at the defense table between his two primary attorneys, Libby displayed little emotion as the verdict was read just after noon. When the first "guilty" was uttered by the jury forewoman, Libby blinked rapidly but otherwise maintained a blank face. After the full verdict was rendered, Libby turned toward his wife, Harriet Grant, with a stoic smile.

Grant, who sat in the front row throughout the trial, had a more visible reaction, bowing her head as her husband was declared guilty on multiple counts, and dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. Later, she embraced several of the lawyers on Libby's team.

The trial was the first of a senior White House official in more than a decade, and the first conviction since national security advisor John M. Poindexter and former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North were convicted for their involvement in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair in the 1980s. Both verdicts were later thrown out on appeal.

"A conviction at that high level within the White House is almost unheard of in our history," said Guy Singer, a former Justice Department prosecutor who specialized in public corruption cases, including the conviction of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "It is exceedingly rare that a prosecution is initiated, let alone concluded, at this level. For such a high-ranking member to be convicted of obstructing justice is really astounding."

The verdict was a measure of vindication for Fitzgerald, whose three-year probe into the unmasking of Plame drew complaints that he was straying far from his charge of finding out who leaked her identity to the public.

Libby was neither the first nor the only administration official who discussed Plame with reporters; Collins, the jury spokesman, said that for a time during the deliberations, there was a concern that Libby was being made a "fall guy."

Fitzgerald said the seriousness of the lies more than justified the prosecution of Libby. "We could not walk away from that," Fitzgerald said to reporters on the courthouse steps. "It's inconceivable that any responsible prosecutor could walk away and say, 'There's nothing there.' "

The lone count on which the jury acquitted Libby dealt with whether he had lied to the FBI about a conversation he had with then-Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper. Cooper testified that Libby had been a confirming source for a story he had written about Plame and Wilson for the magazine's website.

Collins, himself a former Washington Post reporter, said the jury had doubts about that charge because Cooper did not have any notes about the conversation and because there was no evidence that he had shared the information with his editors.

The guilty verdicts could have lasting political implications. An appeal will probably take a year to 18 months, remaining in the news during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Some observers expect that Libby's supporters, who have raised more than $3.5 million in a legal defense fund, will turn their efforts to securing a presidential pardon.

Legal experts said that under federal sentencing guidelines, Libby faced a sentence in the range of 21 to 27 months in prison, which could go higher depending on whether the prosecution urges a stiffer penalty.

"If the government wants to go full-court press, they could argue

He said that a new federal law gave victims the right to be involved in the sentencing process. That could mean that Plame, who retired from the CIA after her cover was blown, could be a witness at sentencing proceedings.

Civil suit awaits

Plame and her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, have filed a civil lawsuit against Libby, Cheney and others, alleging they violated the couple's constitutional rights by publicly disclosing her identity. In a prepared statement issued by their lawyers Tuesday, they said they believed the verdict and findings of the criminal trial would bolster the private suit.

"What happened today just reaffirmed that nobody is above the law," Wilson said in a phone interview. "In addition to everything else -- destroying her career and the personal inconvenience of being maligned -- this was a case of somebody betraying American national security secrets."

Wilson said that he was informed of the verdict in a phone call from his wife, who said simply: "Four counts guilty." She was not available for comment

Tuesday's verdict capped off an intrigue that began with a single sentence, which Bush uttered in his January 2003 State of the Union address, declaring that Saddam Hussein had recently sought nuclear material in Africa.

The statement drew the attention of Wilson, who had been sent by the CIA to Africa in February 2002 to assess the claim about Iraq; he had found it baseless.

Wilson began speaking to reporters, and went public on July 6, 2003, accusing the administration in a New York Times op-ed piece of twisting the prewar intelligence. Eight days later, his wife, and her connection to the CIA, were disclosed by syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

Libby, the only person charged in the ensuing investigation, was indicted in October 2005, accused of covering up his participation in the pushback against Wilson. His lawyers argued that he did not lie but may have misspoken to investigators because he was immersed in his work.

But the trial exposed how both Libby and Cheney were intensely focused on Wilson and his criticism, and how Wilson's wife became an important part of the administration story line.

Top CIA and State Department officials testified that they had told Libby that Plame worked for the CIA. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer testified that Libby had shared the information with him in hushed tones at a private lunch in the White House mess. NBC's Russert also took the stand, and denied that he ever spoke with Libby about Plame.

According to Fitzgerald, Libby panicked when he realized he may have broken the law by talking to reporters about Plame. So he invented a story that he was simply passing along information he had heard from other reporters, which would not be a crime.

"The sad truth is when people lie," Fitzgerald said during his closing argument, "it looks dumb when they are caught."

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

greg.miller@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Timeline

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The Libby jurors focused on evidence and testimony about events that began unfolding during the opening months of the U.S.-led war in Iraq:

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2003

Jan. 28: President Bush says in his State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

May 6: New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof reports that a former ambassador, whom he does not name, was sent to Niger in 2002 and had reported to the CIA and State Department well before Bush's speech that the uranium story was unequivocally wrong.

May 29: Libby asks Marc Grossman, an undersecretary of State, for information about the ambassador's trip to Niger. Grossman later tells Libby that Joseph C. Wilson IV was the former ambassador.

June 11 or 12: Grossman tells Libby that Wilson's wife works at the CIA.

June 12: Vice President Dick Cheney advises Libby that Wilson's wife works at the CIA.

June 23: Libby meets with New York Times reporter Judith Miller. During the meeting, Miller says, Libby tells her that Wilson's wife may work at a bureau of the CIA. Libby denies saying that.

July 6: The New York Times publishes an opinion piece by Wilson under the headline "What I Didn't Find in Africa."

July 8: Columnist Robert Novak interviews Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who tells him that Wilson's wife works for the CIA.

July 10: Libby calls NBC newsman Tim Russert to complain about a colleague's news coverage. At the end of the conversation, Libby says, Russert tells him that "all the reporters know" that Wilson's wife works at the CIA. Libby says he was surprised to hear that. Russert denies saying it.

July 14: Novak reports that Wilson's wife is a CIA operative and that two senior administration officials, whom Novak does not name, said she suggested sending her husband to Niger.

Sept. 26: A criminal investigation is authorized to determine who leaked Valerie Plame's identity to reporters. A short time later, Armitage tells investigators he may have inadvertently leaked her identity to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

Oct. 14 and Nov. 26: Libby is interviewed by FBI agents.

2004

January: A grand jury begins investigating possible violations of federal criminal laws.

March 5 and March 24: Libby testifies before the grand jury. Libby tells jurors that he forgot the information about Plame working for the CIA until he heard it from Russert.

2005

Oct. 28: Libby is indicted on five counts: obstruction of justice and two counts each of false statement and perjury.

2006

Sept. 7: Armitage admits he leaked Plame's identity to Novak and Woodward, saying he did not realize Plame was a covert operative.

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Source: Associated Press

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I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby

Age: 56

Birthplace: New Haven, Conn.

Education: B.A., Yale University, 1972; J.D., Columbia University, 1975

Career: Entered government in 1981 with the State Department as a member of the policy planning staff. During the George H.W. Bush administration, he was confirmed by the Senate as deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy.

He was chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney and assistant to the vice president for national security affairs from 2001 until resigning in October 2005 after he was indicted on charges related to the investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity to the media. Libby is also a senior advisor at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

Family: Wife, Harriet Grant; two children

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Source: Marquis Who's Who

Graphics reporting by Scott Wilson

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Guilty on four of five counts

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was found guilty on four of five charges:

Perjury: For lying about his conversation with NBC journalist Tim Russert. | Perjury: For lying about conversations with other reporters.| Making a false statement: To the FBI about a conversation with Russert. | Obstruction of justice: For intentionally deceiving a grand jury investigating the

exposure of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. | Making false statements: To the FBI about conversations with then-Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper.

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