11-3-05 - Armed with new legal firepower, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff was expected to plead innocent Thursday in his first court appearance since being indicted in the CIA leak scandal.
I. Lewis Libby was appearing before U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton in a case in which Bush administration officials, including Cheney, could be summoned to testify. Walton is a former prosecutor who has spent two decades as a judge in the nation's capital.
Libby signaled his determination to fight the charges after Friday's grand jury indictment, which has provided more fuel to the political debate over the White House's possible misuse of prewar intelligence on Iraq. Cheney's former top aide has hired well-known criminal trial lawyers Ted Wells and William Jeffress to bolster his legal team.
Wells won acquittals for former Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy and former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan. He is a partner at the New York-based firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Jeffress is from the firm Baker Botts, where Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III is a senior partner. Jeffress has won acquittals for public officials accused of extortion, perjury, money laundering, and vote-buying, his firm's Web site says.
Libby was charged with lying to investigators about leaking the CIA identity of the wife of administration critic Joseph Wilson. Valerie Plame's name was exposed by conservative columnist Robert Novak after Wilson accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence in the run-up to the war to exaggerate the Iraqi threat from weapons of mass destruction.
The indictment says Libby got information about Plame's identity in June of 2003 from Cheney, the State Department and the CIA, then spread it to New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper. Libby told FBI agents and a federal grand jury that his information had come from NBC reporter Tim Russert.
Russert says he and Libby never discussed Wilson or his wife.
Miller, who never wrote a story, said Libby told her about the CIA connection of Wilson's wife. Cooper said Libby was one of his sources for a story identifying the CIA connection of Wilson's wife.
Libby attorney Joseph Tate said inconsistencies in recollections among people regarding long-ago events should not be charged as crimes. Libby is accused of one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of lying to FBI agents and two counts of perjury before a federal grand jury.
The judge handling Libby's case is an appointee of three Republican presidents.
Early in his career, Walton was a highly respected trial lawyer for the U.S. attorney's office in the District of Columbia. When President Reagan appointed him to Superior Court in Washington, D.C., Walton became known as a no-nonsense judge who was tough on sentencing street criminals. He served as the senior White House adviser for crime in the administration of President Bush's father before returning to Superior Court. In 2001, the current president nominated Walton to the U.S. District Court.
Senate Democrats seized on the Libby indictment to put the Bush administration on the defensive, focusing attention on the possible manipulation of pre-war intelligence on Iraq and the failure by Senate Republicans to promptly investigate the issue.
Democrats are pressing for the intelligence committee to examine:
_The administration's strongly worded pre-war statements on the Iraqi threat and whether they match up with the actual intelligence.
_The role of the pro-war Iraq National Congress, an exile group run by Ahmad Chalabi, in feeding information from defectors to the Pentagon and to Cheney's office.
_ The intelligence activities of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which fed policy-makers uncorroborated prewar intelligence on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, particularly involving purported ties with the al-Qaida terror network.
_The pre-war intelligence assessment and its failure to predict the post-war insurgency.
"Any line of questioning that has brought us too close to the White House has been thwarted," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee. "We have been undermined, avoided, put off, and vilified by the other side."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday that the Clinton administration and fellow Democrats used intelligence to come to the same conclusion as the Bush administration, that Saddam Hussein and his regime were a threat.