WASHINGTON — The vice president's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., was indicted today on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements in the CIA leak investigation, a politically charged case that casts a harsh light on President Bush's push to war.
Libby, 55, resigned and left the White House.
Karl Rove, Bush's closest adviser, escaped indictment but remained under investigation, his legal status casting a dark cloud over a White House already in trouble. The U.S. military death toll in Iraq exceeded 2,000 this week, and the president's approval ratings are at the lowest point since he took office in 2001.
Today's charges stemmed from a two-year investigation by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald into whether Rove, Libby or any other administration officials knowingly revealed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame or misled investigators about their involvement.
In the end, Fitzgerald accused Libby of lying about his conversations with reporters, not outing a spy.
"Mr. Libby's story that he was at the tail end of a chain of phone calls, passing on from one reporter what he heard from another, was not true. It was false," the prosecutor said. "He was at the beginning of the chain of the phone calls, the first official to disclose this information outside the government to a reporter. And he lied about it afterward, under oath, repeatedly."
Fitzgerald said his case would not try to determine whether the Iraq war was right or wrong. "This indictment is not about the propriety of the war," he said.
Libby's indictment is a political embarrassment for the president, paving the way for a possible trial renewing the focus on the administration's faulty rationale for going to war against Iraq — the erroneous assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
It could also mean that Cheney, who prizes secrecy, will be called upon as a witness to explain why the administration launched a campaign against Plame's husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, a critic of the war who questioned Bush's assertion that Iraq had sought nuclear material.
The indictment said Cheney advised Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA but that the vice president was not the first administration official to tell him about it.
At a news conference, Fitzgerald said the inquiry was substantially complete, though he added ominously, "It's not over." He declined to comment about Rove's involvement. Asked about Cheney, he said: "I'm not making allegations about anyone not charged in the indictment."
When asked about New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail after initially refusing to testify before the grand jury, Fitzgerald said he wished Miller had “spent not a second in jail,” according to a Times transcript of the news conference.
“No one wanted to have a dispute with The New York Times or anyone else,” Fitzgerald said. “I was not looking for a First Amendment showdown.”
The grand jury indictment charged Libby with one count of obstruction of justice, two of perjury and two of making false statements. If convicted on all five, he could face as much as 30 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines.
Democrats suggested the indictment was just the tip of the iceberg. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the case was larger than Libby and was "about how the Bush White House manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to bolster its case for the war in Iraq and to discredit anyone who dared to challenge the president."
Cheney was mentioned by name in the 22-page indictment and several officials were identified by title, but no one besides Libby was charged.
Libby is considered Cheney's alter ego, a chief architect of the war with Iraq. A trial would give the public a rare glimpse into Cheney's influential role in the West Wing and his behind-the-scenes lobbying for war.
Bush ordered U.S. troops to war in March 2003, saying Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program posed a grave and immediate threat to the United States. No such weapons were found.
After the indictment was announced, Libby submitted his resignation to White House chief of staff Andy Card. It was accepted and Libby left the grounds. Card notified Bush.
Cheney issued a statement saying he had accepted Libby's resignation "with deep regret." He added that Libby was entitled to a presumption of innocence in the case and praised his longtime aide as "one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known."
Rove's lawyer said he was told by special prosecutor Fitzgerald's office that investigators would continue their probe into the aide's conduct.
The lack of an indictment against Rove was a mixed outcome for the administration. It keeps in place the president's top adviser, the architect of his political machine whose fingerprints can be found on virtually every policy that emerges from the White House.
But leaving Rove in legal jeopardy keeps Bush and his team working on problems like the Iraq war, a Supreme Court vacancy and slumping poll ratings.
Sen. Edward M Kennedy, D-Mass., said the indictment marked a "signifying a new low since Watergate in terms of openness and honesty in our government." Sen. John Kerry, who ran unsuccessfully against Bush last year, called the case "evidence of White House corruption at the very highest levels."
Hoping to contain the damage, Republicans turned against Libby. Several welcomed his resignation.
"It's time to stop the leaks and spin and turn Washington into one big recovery meeting where people say what they mean and mean what they say," said Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said through a spokesman that the Senate won't investigate the CIA leak.
The indictment alleges that Libby began digging for details about Wilson, Plame's husband and an Iraq war critic, well before the former ambassador went public July 6, 2003, in a newspaper opinion piece with his criticism of the Bush administration's use of faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq's nuclear ambitions.
Libby made his first inquiries about Wilson's travel to Niger in late May 2003 — a trip the government sent him on in early 2002 to check on reports that Saddam was trying to buy uranium — and by June 11 Libby was informed by a CIA official that Wilson's wife worked for the agency and might have sent him on the trip.
On June 12, 2003, the indictment alleges, Libby heard directly from Cheney that Plame worked for the spy agency.
"Libby was advised by the vice president of the United States that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA in the counterproliferation division. Libby understood that the vice president had learned this information from the CIA," Fitzgerald said.
A short time later, Libby began spreading information to reporters, starting with the Times' Miller on June 23.
The indictment says a substantial number of people in the White House knew about Plame's CIA status before the publication of Robert Novak's column on July 14, 2003, including former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Rove's potential legal problems stem in part from the fact that he failed initially to disclose to prosecutors a conversation in which he told Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper that Plame worked for the CIA. Rove says the conversation slipped his mind.
Meanwhile in New York today, New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the newspaper was far too slow in correcting its reports indicating Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but that the blame did not lie entirely with Miller, the author of many of the stories.
In a speech to the Online News Association, Sulzberger also defended Miller's decision to go to jail to protect the identity of her source, Libby. Miller was released last month after agreeing to testify to the grand jury that indicted Libby today.
Sulzberger acknowledged the criticism of Miller, who in the wake of her release from jail has been described on the pages of the Times as untruthful to her editors and difficult to control.
"As the lawyers often say, not every case has a perfect fact pattern," he said.
Confidential sources are and will remain key to thorough coverage of Washington, Sulzberger said.
"The next time the source might be a brave government whistleblower with documents like the ones that produced stories on the Pentagon Papers or Abu Ghraib," Sulzberger said.
When asked by a member of the audience whether he thought the Times' credibility had been hurt by what the questioner termed its failure to fire Miller, he responded, "No, I don't."
He added, however, "There's no question that the Times suffered," and its reputation was hurt by the cumulative effect of the ongoing controversy.
In his address, Sulzberger said the failure not to quickly correct the Iraqi weapons reports rested also with the Times' many editors.
"It was an institutional failure. We didn't own up to it quickly enough," he said. "The story is not over."
Asked after the speech whether he was referring to ongoing developments in Washington or the status of Miller's relationship with the Times, he said he left that deliberately ambiguous and preferred not to be more specific.