News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Intrigue Has Familiar Ring for Libby and Associates - New York Times

WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 - The intrigue in I. Lewis Libby's novel, "The Apprentice," centers on a group of travelers seeking shelter from a blizzard in a Japanese inn. With a distant war as the backdrop to their conversations, the guests are unfailingly polite, but they are also deeply suspicious of one another's motives.

Two days after the indictment of Mr. Libby, the White House shares more than a few similarities with his fictional ryokan, the traditional Japanese inn where ritual can mask reality.

In conversations over the weekend, administration officials and others close to the White House said President Bush's team was relieved that the prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, found no conspiracy. But that relief began to be tinged with a new sense of apprehension. Partly, they say, that is because Mr. Fitzgerald made it clear that his investigation into who blew the cover of the C.I.A. operative, Valerie Wilson, remained open.

But it is also partly because there is speculation about whether Mr. Libby, facing the possibility of significant prison time if convicted, may decide that even his loyalty to the Bush-Cheney team has its limits.

While Mr. Libby said Friday, "I am confident that at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated," the speculation posits that Mr. Libby may seek a plea bargain that could win him leniency and perhaps limit or sidestep jail time. In return he would have to provide something Mr. Fitzgerald says he still wants: an unobscured view into who at the White House may have signed off on revealing Ms. Wilson's identity, in hopes of discrediting her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. It was Mr. Wilson, a former ambassador, who took issue withreports that Iraq had tried to buy processed uranium from Niger.

But these theories assume that Mr. Libby has something to say about the role of others, and it is unclear that he does.

Mr. Libby is just assembling a criminal defense team. A seasoned lawyer himself, he undoubtedly will rely on his own training and instincts in deciding whether to fight, as he vowed to on Friday, or seek a deal.

"No one thinks this is the end of the road," said one longtime associate of Mr. Libby, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the delicate nature of the court proceeding. "He's the picture of loyalty, and some say we'll now see what happens when Scooter's legal mind is unleashed on his own defense."

But others, the associate acknowledged, "are amazed that Scooter is the one who got tagged" with obstructing the investigation.

A former White House official who often worked with Mr. Libby said on Sunday evening, after talking with his former colleagues, that "the scenario everyone is talking about is whether Scooter explains how this all happened." That would include exactly what was said aboard Vice President Dick Cheney's plane in June, just before a few reporters began to hear that Ms. Wilson worked at the Central Intelligence Agency and had played a role in dispatching her husband on a mission to Niger.

Officially, White House officials will not discuss whether they harbor any concerns about what Mr. Libby may talk about. The case is "so complicated and so layered," one of Mr. Bush's aides said this weekend, that no one knows if what happened on Friday was the investigation's climax, or its penultimate phase.

Mr. Cheney - who appears and disappears in critical segments of the indictment, but whose exact role is as shrouded in mystery as ever - made it clear in a statement that he had no intention of explaining his own role. At the end of a statement praising Mr. Libby's service, he said, "It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the charges or any facts relating to the proceeding."

But Mr. Cheney's statement was also effusive in its praise of Mr. Libby - "one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known," he said - and Mr. Bush was only slightly less complimentary. Both urged that Mr. Libby be given a chance to mount a vigorous defense, with a presumption of innocence.

"For a short-term political gain we would have expressed outrage" at Mr. Libby, one senior administration official said. "But if you are going to be serious about the process, and the presumption of innocence, you can't do that."

Perhaps that was also an unspoken signal to Mr. Libby to stay in the fold; there was speculation on Sunday interview programs that he could, some day, receive a presidential pardon. (That happened to some in the Iran-contra scandal.) But however warm the words, Mr. Libby is already being cast adrift, much like one of the lonely characters in his novel, which he used to give to office visitors who engaged him in discussions about Japan.

Just hours after the announcement of Mr. Libby's indictment on Friday afternoon, an e-mail message to all members of the administration from the White House counsel's office warned that "you should not discuss any aspect of the matter with Mr. Libby and should not engage in any conduct that might be perceived as influencing or attempting to influence the proceedings."

Figuring out Mr. Bush's own reaction to these events is, of course, even harder. But to judge by the comments of some of his inner circle, Mr. Bush remains insistent that his administration did not hype the evidence of unconventional weapons in Iraq, including the nuclear claim at the center of this dispute.

Mr. Bush's aides portray themselves as victims in this case, battered by conflicting intelligence and ill served by the head of the C.I.A. at the time, George J. Tenet. Mr. Tenet, they argue, did not convey to the White House doubts he had about the validity of the charge. But Mr. Tenet's doubts were deep enough that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview in 2003, said that he had never believed the uranium story and that he was mystified why the White House thought it legitimate.

In the end, it may be only Mr. Libby who can answer that question. He may yet get his chance, or he may choose the Japanese option, leaving the end of the story full of ambiguity.


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