When the first sitting White House staffer to be indicted in 135 years is standing 10 feet away from the guy who is trying to throw him in jail for 30 years, it is a tad awkward.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, was standing with his four attorneys at a table in the front of a federal courtroom in Washington Thursday morning, accused of lying to the FBI and a grand jury. Libby has a broken foot and propped his metal crutches against a table. He seemed able to stand with no problem.
When special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald entered the room and stood just paces apart from Libby, both men seemed to avoid eye contact. Even when Fitzgerald walked directly in front of Libby to take his own seat on the other side of the courtroom, neither man raised his head to look the other in the eye.
If Libby was nervous or wanted to throttle Fitzgerald, he didn't show it. Before the proceedings began this morning he talked amiably with his defense team and even laughed quietly at what must have been a very funny joke, given the circumstances of the United States of America v. Lewis Libby.
Libby hobbled on crutches to a dais and faced Judge Reggie B. Walton, a Bush appointee. He spoke just 11 words when asked if he wanted to make a plea. "Yes, I do. With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty." Not guilty, that is, to two counts of perjury, two counts of making false statements, and one count of obstruction of justice.
The whole thing took about 10 minutes and could be the only news on the case for a while. Libby waived his right for a speedy trial. Much of the information that Fitzgerald generated during the 22-month inquiry is classified. He and Libby's defense team agreed it would take weeks to get security clearances for Libby's lawyers, allowing them to comb through the material. Judge Walton set the next hearing on the case for Feb. 3. Fitzgerald estimated that it would then take two weeks to present the government's case against Cheney's closest aid.
Libby has beefed up his defense team with well-known criminal trial lawyers Ted Wells and William Jeffress. Not surprisingly, Wells told reporters outside the courthouse that a jury would clear Libby's good name. "In pleading not guilty, he has declared to the world that he is innocent," said Wells. Libby "has declared that he intends to fight the charges in the indictment" and wants to "clear his good name."
The case may hinge on Fitzgerald's ability to prove that Libby was lying, as opposed to suffering a memory lapse. That will not be easy. "It is tough to prove perjury," said Louis Michael Seidman, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. "There is very little way of knowing how strong the case is. People's memories vary about what was said, and you have to prove that the perjury is deliberate and did not just involve a failure of memory."
It is unclear how much, if any, of the juicy data on intelligence prior to the war in Iraq might come out during a trial. Fitzgerald has said that the indictment against Libby is not designed to put the rationale for war in Iraq on trial.
Libby is accused of lying about how he learned classified information about a CIA operative, Valerie Plame Wilson, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson has famously alleged that the White House should have known that its claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa to build a nuclear weapon was bogus. The White House fired back and in the process Valerie Wilson's cover at the CIA was blown in the press.
Libby resigned when he was indicted last week. Meanwhile, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove has been identified by many in the press as "Official A." The indictment states that "Official A" discussed Valerie Wilson with columnist Robert Novak, who first exposed her as a CIA operative. Rove wasn't indicted and reports suggested that he got off the hook when his attorneys gave Fitzgerald a last-minute flurry of information.
But on Thursday the Washington Post indicated that Rove may still face charges. The paper reported that Fitzgerald this week talked with an attorney for Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper about his client's conversations with Rove before and after Valerie Wilson's CIA status became publicly known. The Post said Fitzgerald is still considering charging Rove with making false statements. The paper cites sources close to Rove who said they expect to know within weeks whether the most powerful aide in the White House will also have to stand awkwardly in a courtroom, just feet away from Fitzgerald.