WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney was found guilty on Tuesday of lying and obstructing a probe related to the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war and could face years in prison.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby was acquitted of just one of five counts in the investigation into who blew the cover of a CIA analyst.
The Libby verdict came on the 10th day of jury deliberations and was hailed by Democrats as an appropriate rejection of the administration’s case for a war that has become widely unpopular with the U.S. public.
The guilty verdict was the latest in a series of setbacks growing out of the Bush administration’s Iraq war policy — including flawed intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, failure to commit enough troops to quell sectarian violence, prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, and an outcry over treatment of U.S. war wounded.
Defense attorney Theodore Wells said Libby would seek a new trial, and if denied, would appeal the conviction.
“We have every confidence that ultimately Mr. Libby will be vindicated,” Wells said.
The trial stemmed from a probe into the leak of CIA analyst Valerie Plame’s identity in 2003 after her husband accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to build its case for war.
Libby sat expressionless as the verdict was read in a packed Washington courtroom. His wife wept.
Cheney said he was very disappointed. “Scooter served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction through many years of public service,” he said in a statement.
No charges were brought for the actual leaking of Plame’s name. As Cheney’s chief of staff, Libby tried in conversations with reporters to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, by implying an overseas trip he made to determine whether Iraq sought nuclear material was a junket set up by his wife.
Critics of President George W. Bush had seized on the Libby trial as showing the heavy-handed way the White House operated, and accused the administration of hypocrisy over its promises of clean government.
“The testimony unmistakably revealed — at the highest levels of the Bush administration — a callous disregard in handling sensitive national security information and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq,” said House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“It’s about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable,” added Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Libby, who resigned when he was charged in October 2005, was found guilty of one count of obstructing the investigation into the Plame leak, two counts of perjury before a grand jury and one count of making false statements to the FBI. He was acquitted of a second count of making false statements.
Libby faces a maximum of 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines, but experts predicted he would likely serve fewer than five.
Herb Hoelter, co-founder of the nonprofit National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, said U.S. courts have wide leeway but “you’re probably talking in the one-, two-, three-year range.”
Bush watched television coverage of the verdict, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
“He said that he respected the jury’s verdict. He said he was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family,” Perino said, refusing to speculate on the possibility of a presidential pardon.
Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said the CIA leak investigation was over and would not extend to other administration officials.
“I do not expect to file any additional charges,” he said.
Prosecutors called a parade of government officials to bolster their charge that Libby had lied when he said he learned about Plame from NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. The jury found Libby guilty on both charges involving Russert, who said Plame never came up in their conversation.
He was acquitted on one count related to a conversation with Time Magazine’s Matt Cooper.
Libby’s attorneys argued he could not accurately recall conversations about Plame when he was interviewed months later.
Juror Denis Collins said many jurors felt that other officials who leaked Plame’s name to reporters, such as senior White House aide Karl Rove, should have been on trial.
“There was a tremendous amount of sympathy for Mr. Libby on the jury,” Collins said. “It was said a number of times, “What are we doing with this guy here? Where’s Rove... where are these other guys?”
Fitzgerald said, “It’s sad that we had a high level official, a person who worked in the office of the vice president, obstructed justice and lied under oath.”