Top White House aide indicted

Mr Libby could face up to 30 years in prison. His resignation was announced minutes after the indictment was filed in a case that has put a spotlight on how the administration sold the nation on the war in Iraq and countered its critics.

Mr Cheney said Mr Libby would “fight the charges brought against him.” Mr Libby predicted “At the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated.”

President George W. Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, was not indicted along with Mr Libby, but special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has made clear to Mr Rove he remains under investigation and in legal jeopardy, lawyers said.

“It’s not over,” Mr Fitzgerald told a news conference.

Mr Libby, who played a major behind-the-scenes role in building the case for the Iraq war, was accused in the five-count indictment of making false statements about how and when he learned and disclosed to reporters classified information about CIA operative, Valerie Plame.

Revealing the identity of a covert agent is a federal offence.

Ms Plame’s cover was blown after her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of twisting pre-war intelligence to support military action against Iraq. Mr Wilson said it was done deliberately to erode his credibility.

“Today is a sad day for America,” Mr Wilson said in a statement. “When an indictment is delivered at the front door of the White House, the Office of the President is defiled.”

If convicted, Mr Libby, 55, faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.

The Charges

The charges accuse Mr Libby of lying to FBI agents who interviewed him on October 14, 2003, and November 26, 2003, committing perjury while testifying under oath to the grand jury twice in March 2004, and engaging in obstruction of justice by impeding the grand jury’s investigation.

Mr Fitzgerald dismissed as “false” Mr Libby’s story that he learned about Mr Wilson’s wife from reporters.

“He was at the beginning of the chain of phone calls, the first official to disclose this information outside the government to a reporter. And then he lied about it afterwards, under oath and repeatedly,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

Some Republicans have accused Mr Fitzgerald of being overzealous by pursuing “legal technicalities” instead of the underlying crime. Mr Libby was not charged with illegally disclosing the name of a covert CIA operative.

“I’ll be blunt,” Mr Fitzgerald said in response. “That talking point won’t fly.”

Steven Reich, a New York attorney and former senior associate counsel to President Bill Clinton, said Mr Fitzgerald has his reasons for not charging anyone with the leak.

“Either he thought there was not a crime, or he thought he couldn’t prove it. No one will know which but him,” he said.

It may have been smart strategy, however, for the prosecutor to go with safer charges, considering the stakes in investigating the highest levels of the White House.

“Perjury and false statement can be remarkably easy to prove,” said Andrew D. Levy, a criminal defence lawyer in Baltimore who teaches at the University of Maryland. “So often it’s the cover-up that ensnares people.”

Mr Levy said the indictment is “very narrow, very focused – it follows, very provable.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke Law School professor, said it is not unusual for criminal probes to change their focus.

“What brought down the Nixon administration wasn’t the burglary itself, but the cover-up of it,” Mr Chemerinsky said, adding that what caused former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment “wasn’t that he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky but he lied about it.”

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