WASHINGTON -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide and a senior adviser to President Bush, was indicted yesterday on charges he lied to a federal grand jury and investigators in the CIA leak inquiry.
Libby, 55, Cheney's influential right-hand man, resigned from the White House, dealing another setback to a weakened president facing mounting challenges.
The five-count indictment against Libby came as Bush's close strategist Karl Rove remains under investigation in the probe, which touches on politically explosive questions about Bush's justification for the war in Iraq.
Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald announced the charges against Libby - which together carry a prison term of up to 30 years and penalties of up to $1.25 million - after nearly two years investigating whether White House officials broke the law by unmasking a covert CIA officer through leaks to journalists.
Fitzgerald, whose investigation reached into the highest levels of the Bush White House and touched on key elements of the president's case for the war, accused Libby of covering up his role in outing the CIA employee, Valerie Plame, and impeding his investigation into whether her exposure was a crime.
Bush, smarting from the withdrawal Thursday of his Supreme Court pick Harriet E. Miers, praised Libby's service and said he and his team were "saddened by today's news," but added that his White House would not be distracted by it.
"I got a job to do, and so do the people who work in the White House," Bush said in brief comments to reporters, before boarding a helicopter bound for Camp David. "We got a job to protect the American people, and that's what we'll continue working hard to do."
In a written statement, Cheney said Libby had resigned "to fight the charges brought against him."
"Scooter Libby is one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known," said Cheney, expressing "deep regret" about the resignation.
Libby, who has served as Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser throughout Bush's presidency, was indicted on two counts of making false statements to FBI agents, two counts of perjury before a grand jury and one count of obstruction of justice.
"I am confident at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated," Libby said in a statement yesterday.
Fitzgerald didn't indict Libby or anyone for the allegations he originally was to investigate: knowingly exposing a covert intelligence operative.
Libby lied to investigators and the grand jury about how and when he learned Plame's identity in 2003, and then disclosed it to journalists, the indictment said. Libby allegedly told FBI agents and testified that he learned of Plame from reporters, when he in fact heard of her from government officials, including Cheney.
In detailing the charges, Fitzgerald accused Libby of playing the lead role at the White House in publicizing Plame's identity through leaks to the press, and then misleading the investigation to portray himself as an unwitting recipient and conduit of the information through gossip with journalists.
"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," Fitzgerald said during a news conference at the Justice Department. "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."
The circumstances surrounding the investigation were a typical Washington story of whispered behind-the-scenes contacts inside the White House and between highly placed officials and journalists, made more serious because it involved intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, and a CIA operative.
Plame is married to retired diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, who the CIA sent to Niger in 2002 to investigate claims that Hussein had tried to buy "yellowcake" uranium, a nuclear precursor, from the African nation. Wilson returned saying he'd found no evidence of the transaction, and later accused Bush - who had mentioned the claim in his 2003 State of the Union address - of twisting intelligence to justify the war.
As Libby and other top administration officials dug for information on Wilson, who had become a thorn in the administration's side, they discovered that his wife was a CIA agent, a revelation that became public in a July 2003 column by Robert D. Novak. Fitzgerald's assignment was to discover how word leaked out.
The fact that the indictment focused on an alleged cover-up by Libby - not a leak of classified information - should not take away from the charges, said Fitzgerald, a Chicago-based U.S. attorney known for meticulousness.