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Cheney’s former top aide, ‘‘Scooter’’ Libby convicted in CIA leak case

WASHINGTON — Once the closest adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, I. Lewis ‘‘Scooter’’ Libby was convicted Tuesday of lying and obstructing a leak investigation that shook the top levels of the Bush administration.
    He is the highest-ranking White House official convicted in a government scandal since National Security Adviser John Poindexter in the Iran-Contra affair two decades ago.
    In the end, jurors said they did not believe Libby’s main defense: that he hadn’t lied but merely had a bad memory.
    The CIA leak case focused new attention on the Bush administration’s much-criticized handling of intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war. The case cost Cheney his most trusted adviser, and the trial revealed Cheney’s personal obsession with criticism of the war’s justification.
    Trial testimony made clear that President Bush secretly declassified a portion of the prewar intelligence estimate that Cheney quietly sent Libby to leak to Judith Miller of The New York Times in 2003 to rebut criticism by ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson. Bush, Cheney and Libby were the only three people in the government aware of the effort.
    More top reporters were ordered into court — including Miller after 85 days of resistance in jail — to testify about their confidential sources among the nation’s highest-ranking officials than in any other trial in recent memory.
    Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said the verdict closed the nearly four-year investigation into how the name of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, and her classified job at the CIA were leaked to reporters in 2003 — just days after Wilson publicly accused the administration of doctoring prewar intelligence. No one will be charged with the leak itself, which the trial confirmed came first from then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
    ‘‘The results are actually sad,’’ Fitzgerald told reporters after the verdict. ‘‘It’s sad that we had a situation where a high-level official person who worked in the office of the vice president obstructed justice and lied under oath. We wish that it had not happened, but it did.’’
    One juror, former Washington Post reporter Denis Collins, said the jury did not believe Libby’s main defense: that he never lied but just had a faulty memory. Juror Jeff Comer agreed.
    Collins said the jurors spent a week charting the testimony and evidence on 34 poster-size pages. ‘‘There were good managerial type people on this jury who took everything apart and put it in the right place,’’ Collins said. ‘‘After that, it wasn’t a matter of opinion. It was just there.’’
    Libby, not only Cheney’s chief of staff but also an assistant to Bush, was expressionless as the verdict was announced on the 10th day of deliberations. In the front row, his wife, Harriet Grant, choked out a sob and her head sank.
    Libby could face up to 25 years in prison when sentenced June 5, but federal sentencing guidelines will probably prescribe far less, perhaps one to three years. Defense attorneys said they would ask for a retrial and if that fails, appeal the conviction.
    ‘‘We have every confidence Mr. Libby ultimately will be vindicated,’’ defense attorney Theodore Wells told reporters. He said that Libby was ‘‘totally innocent and that he did not do anything wrong.’’
    Libby did not speak to reporters.
    The president watched news of the verdict on television at the White House. Deputy press secretary Dana Perino said Bush respected the jury’s verdict but ‘‘was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family.’’
    In a written statement, Cheney called the verdict disappointing and said he was saddened for Libby and his family, too. ‘‘As I have said before, Scooter has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction through many years of public service.’’
    Wilson, whose wife left the CIA after she was exposed, said, ‘‘Convicting him of perjury was like convicting Al Capone of tax evasion or Alger Hiss of perjury. It doesn’t mean they were not guilty of other crimes.’’
    Libby was convicted of one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury to the grand jury and one count of lying to the FBI about how he learned Plame’s identity and whom he told.
    Libby learned about Plame from Cheney in June 2003 about a month after Wilson’s allegations were first published, without his name, by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
    Prosecutors said Libby relayed the Plame information to other government officials and told reporters, Miller of the Times and Matt Cooper of Time magazine, that she worked at the CIA.
    On July 6, 2003, Wilson publicly wrote that he had gone to Niger in 2002 and debunked a report that Iraq was seeking uranium there for nuclear weapons and that Cheney, who had asked about the report, should have known his findings long before Bush cited the report in 2003 as a justification for the war. On July 14, columnist Robert Novak reported that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and she, not Cheney, had suggested he go on the trip.
    When an investigation of the leak began, prosecutors said, Libby feared prosecution for disclosing classified information so he lied to investigators to make his discussions appear innocent.
    Libby swore that he was so busy he forgot Cheney had told him about Plame, and was surprised to learn it a month later from NBC reporter Tim Russert. He swore he told reporters only that he learned it from other reporters and could not confirm it.
    Russert, however, testified he and Libby never even discussed Plame.
    Libby blamed any misstatements in his account on flaws in his memory.
    He was acquitted of one count of lying to the FBI about his conversation with Cooper.
    Collins said jurors agreed that on nine occasions during a short period of 2003, Libby was either told about Plame or told others about her.
    ‘‘If I’m told something once, I’m likely to forget it,’’ Collins recalled one juror saying. ‘‘If I’m told it many times, I’m less likely to forget it. If I myself tell it to someone else, I’m even less likely to forget it.’’
    Libby is free pending sentencing. His lawyers will ask that he remain so through any appeal.
    ———
    Associated Press writer Natasha T. Metzler contributed to this report.

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