WASHINGTON (AFP) – A federal grand jury has charged top White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby with lying to investigators in a CIA leak probe that has rocked President George W. Bush”s administration.
Libby, 55, announced his resignation as Vice President Dick Cheney”s chief of staff after he was indicted in a case which ignited fresh controversy over the US rationale for war with Iraq.
He faces one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements to investigators and to the grand jury looking into the leaking of the identity of a CIA agent.
Libby faces as many as 30 years in jail and a 1.25 million-dollar fine if convicted on all five counts laid by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, which raise the prospect of a gripping and potentially politically damaging trial.
Bush”s political guru Karl Rove, also in Fitzgerald”s sights during a two-year probe, was not indicted, but will remain under investigation, his lawyer said.
"When citizens testify before grand juries, they are required to tell the truth," said Fitzgerald, who has previously indicted Osama bin Laden, politicians and mobsters.
"The requirement to tell the truth applies equally to all citizens including persons who hold high positions in government."
Fitzgerald was tasked with finding out whether senior Bush administration officials broke the law by knowingly exposing CIA agent Valerie Plame.
Plame”s husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, had claimed her cover was blown to discredit him, after he questioned whether the Bush administration had "twisted" intelligence in the push to war with Iraq.
The indictment was a severe blow to Bush after the defeat of his Supreme Court pick Harriet Miers and his struggles with high gasoline prices, falling approval ratings and the fallout from Hurricane Katrina.
Libby”s exit also is seen as a loss to a White House in which his boss, Cheney, has wielded real influence, particularly on foreign policy. "He functions as a chief of staff, but he also knows Cheney”s thinking on defense and national security issues better than anyone else," says James Mann, author of a book about the Bush administration”s war cabinet, "Rise of the Vulcans."
Bush said the proceedings were "serious" but praised Libby, saying "Scooter has worked tirelessly on behalf of the American people and sacrificed much in the service to this country. He served the vice president and me through extraordinary times in our nation”s history."
Libby said in a statement that he had done nothing wrong. "I am confident that at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated."
Fitzgerald alleged that Libby lied to FBI agents who interviewed him on October 14 and November 26, 2003 and to the grand jury in March 2004.
The charges said Libby obstructed the course of justice by impeding the grand jury investigation into the unauthorised disclosure of Plame”s identity.
He was not however charged with knowingly blowing the cover of Plame, the alleged offense that triggered Fitzgerald”s investigation.
Fitzgerald told Rove, meanwhile, that he had not decided yet whether to indict him, Rove”s lawyer Robert Luskin said, adding he was confident his client would be cleared.
Fitzgerald”s conclusions will reopen debate over whether the administration manipulated intelligence to launch the Iraq invasion in 2003, at the start of a conflict which this week claimed the 2,000th US military death.
Senator John Kerry, the Democrat who lost to Bush in the 2004 election, said the Bush administration "will be indicted in the high court of history" over its drive to war with Iraq.
The Washington Post, in an editorial, said that "the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice filed yesterday against … Libby are serious and appear to be backed by substantial evidence.
Still, "nothing in this indictment suggests a broad-based conspiracy that requires endless further investigation by Congress or others. Nor does this case prove (or refute) charges that President Bush misled the country about the grounds for war," the Post underscored.
"The charges suggest that White House officials did, in fact, use Mrs. Wilson”s classified CIA job as a weapon against a critic of administration policy — to smear his reputation or to warn off other dissenters. A jury will determine whether Mr. Libby broke the law as a result of that campaign. But it seems clear that he and other officials violated the public trust," The New York Times said in an editorial.
Though Cheney appears not to be in legal jeopardy, he may face a political inquisition.
He said in a television interview that he did not know Wilson, a former US ambassador to Gabon who was sent to Niger in February 2002 to investigate claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for nuclear bombs, one of Bush”s justifications for the war.
Libby told investigators, according to the indictment, that he was told about Plame”s identity by the media. But several reporters later denied this. Now it appears that Cheney told Libby.
Wilson said in a statement through his lawyer that the exposure of his wife was "very wrong and harmful to our nation.
"I feel that my family was attacked for my speaking the truth about the events that led our country to war."