For Cheney's top aide, probe of leak poses unfamiliar risks


WASHINGTON -- "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's right-hand man, has been known to hesitate on a snowy precipice before skiing down a murderous run. But not for long.

"He's a risk-taker, but he's not impulsive," says Jackson Hogen, a friend and ski buddy since prep school. "He's a calculated risk-taker."

Whether it's taking to the slopes of Wyoming or drafting bold national security strategy, biking the steep hills of Colorado or making the case for war in Iraq, Libby is known for his ability to analyze complex and sometimes treacherous situations - and then throwing himself head-on into solving them, say friends and colleagues.

Now Libby, the top aide to the most powerful vice president in history and one of the architects of President Bush's policies, is at the center of a criminal investigation into whether administration officials outed a covert CIA agent whose husband criticized Bush and Cheney's case for the war in Iraq.

The 22-month probe, hurtling toward its expected conclusion this week, has shone a spotlight on Libby, a White House player as obscure as he is powerful. Libby faces a very different risk from any he has in the past: a federal indictment at the hands of prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is said to be zeroing in on him - as well as on Bush adviser Karl Rove and other senior officials - as he wraps up his work.

It's an unfamiliar realm for Libby, who has remained determinedly below the radar during a decade of public service in three Republican administrations. During those years, Libby has been instrumental in crafting the audacious post-Cold War defense posture that is the basis for Bush's foreign policy, a leading advocate for the Iraq war, and a trusted adviser to Cheney and Bush.

His powerful role at the White House, especially on matters of war, seems incongruous with his name - bestowed by a father who marveled at how quickly he scooted across his crib.

Libby, whose given name is Irve Lewis Libby Jr., has said he relishes the contrast: "There is a tendency in Washington for people to take themselves a little too seriously, and it's pretty hard to take yourself seriously when your name is Scooter," he told The New York Times in 2002.

What is seldom seen, say some who have worked closely with him, is that Libby is also a personable colleague, a wry and witty presence in circles not known for hilarity, and a deliberative strategist who argues passionately for his views.

"In even the extremely serious situations, he comports himself with a glint of humor," said Juleanna Glover Weiss, Cheney's former spokeswoman. "He's a clear communicator, and he'll tell you, `I wouldn't recommend you do that, I'd recommend you do this.' He makes his point of view known. But he is very open-minded and gracious."

Libby allowed the world a brief glimpse of his lighter side in 2002, when a novel he began in college and published in 1996 came out in paperback. Promoting The Apprentice, a romantic thriller set in rural Japan in the early 1900s, Libby acknowledged that he sometimes dreams of giving up his high-power post to devote his life to literature.

"I'd like to consider myself fully on [Cheney's] team, but there's always a novel kicking around in the back somewhere," he told CNN's Larry King.

The portrait stands in stark opposition to the one that's emerged of Libby in recent months, as information has trickled out about his possible role in the unmasking of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA agent. Plame is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, an administration critic who accused Bush of twisting intelligence to justify going to war in Iraq.

Libby has testified twice in the grand jury inquiry. Neither he nor his lawyer returned calls for comment on this story.

At least two journalists spoke with Libby about Plame's identity - though not her name or covert status - in 2003, they have told the grand jury in the investigation. Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time have revealed in written accounts that the conversations took place around the time that Wilson wrote a scathing Times op-ed that questioned Bush's assertion in his State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase nuclear materials from Africa.

It is a crime under certain circumstances to expose the identity of a covert agent or to divulge classified information to someone not authorized to receive it. But in recent weeks, say lawyers and analysts who have been closely tracking the case, Fitzgerald appears to have shifted his focus away from those offenses and toward trying to determine whether Libby, Rove or others were involved in a conspiracy or individual efforts to cover up their roles in the matter.

Those who know Libby say he's kept his perspective through the ordeal, but the investigation has shaken the White House.

"Amid the heightened speculation, he seems as right as ever," Glover Weiss said. "It's not impacting his ability to do his job or his view on life."

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