WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he lied to federal agents and a grand jury that were investigating the leaking of a CIA officer's name.
That plea from I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby sets the stage for a trial next year that could cause problems for the White House.
So far, Libby is the only person from the administration charged with any crime relating to the leak or the investigation that followed.
But special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald could seek testimony from Cheney and top Bush administration officials about whether the administration deliberately tried to discredit former diplomat Joseph Wilson and in the process "outed" Wilson's wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame. Wilson had publicly accused the White House of overstating its case for going to war with Iraq. His wife's identity was revealed July 14, 2003, by columnist Robert Novak.
"This is a trial the White House would rather not see happen," says Randall Eliason, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia.
Libby resigned from his post Oct. 28 after Fitzgerald indicted him on one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements. Fitzgerald says Libby lied when he swore he'd learned about Plame from reporters. Instead, Fitzgerald alleges, Libby learned about her from Cheney and other officials and then spread the word to at least two journalists.
Libby has not been charged with mishandling classified information or illegally revealing Plame's identity. At his arraignment in federal court Thursday morning, Libby said, "With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty" to all five charges the grand jury has brought.
Outside the courthouse later, Libby's newly hired lead defense attorney said his client had "declared to the world that he is innocent." Libby will "fight these charges and clear his good name," Theodore Wells told reporters. The remarks seemed to indicate Libby will not try to cut a deal with Fitzgerald.
Eliason says there's a good chance the case won't go to trial, though. It's likely Fitzgerald will pressure Libby to cooperate with the investigation into who was involved in the leak or tried to cover it up, he says. "In exchange, Fitzgerald might be able to offer a substantial reduction in his sentence," Eliason says.
If convicted on all counts, Libby could get up to 30 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine. He is free without bail. A trial isn't likely to start until spring.