WASHINGTON – In the first criminal indictment of a senior Bush White House official, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby was charged Friday with repeatedly lying to investigators about his role in leaking information to reporters about a CIA agent.

Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald said Libby’s actions jeopardized national security. “It’s important that a CIA officer’s identity be protected, that it be protected not just for the officer, but for the nation’s security,” Fitzgerald said in announcing the charges.

Fitzgerald said the 25-month investigation is “not quite done” but he refused to discuss the possibility of charges against Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, who testified four times before the grand jury and whose lawyer Friday acknowledged ongoing discussions with the special prosecutor.

Rove is not mentioned by name, but a source close to the investigation confirmed that he is described in the indictment as “Official A,” a senior White House official who spoke to Robert Novak before his syndicated column in July 2003 first revealed the agent’s identity.

Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, said in a statement Friday that Rove is cooperating in Fitzgerald’s investigation and that “the special counsel has advised Mr. Rove that he has made no decision about whether or not to bring charges.”

Libby, 55, resigned minutes after a Washington, D.C., federal grand jury handed up a five-count indictment around midday charging him with obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements.

The charges further roiled a White House already struggling with sagging public support for the war in Iraq, criticism over the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers.

Democrats quickly denounced the Bush administration for misleading the nation into war and for a “culture of corruption” and “Nixonian tactics.”

According to the unusually detailed 22-page indictment, Libby, in essence, falsely claimed that he was merely passing on information gleaned from reporters when in fact he was spreading the word among journalists that Valerie Plame, who also is known by her married name, Wilson, was a CIA agent.

Libby “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 afterwards under oath and repeatedly,” said Fitzgerald, who is also the U.S. attorney in Chicago.

Although it’s not spelled out in the indictment, Libby’s apparent motive was to discredit Plame’s husband, retired diplomat Joseph Wilson IV, who had been a sharp critic of Bush’s rationale for the Iraq war.

In February 2002, the CIA had sent Joseph Wilson to Niger in Africa to assess intelligence reports that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in order to develop nuclear weapons.

Wilson privately reported to the CIA that the reports were likely untrue. A May 6, 2003, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof repeated Wilson’s doubts, though it did not mention him by name.

In a matter of weeks, Libby, who was a strong proponent of the Iraq invasion, found out Wilson’s identity as well as the employment of his wife and discussed it with various White House officials, including Cheney, Rove and former press secretary Ari Fleischer, according to the indictment.

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper has said that Rove was a source for stories he wrote about Plame.

The indictment portrays Libby as obsessed with finding out about the Wilsons in the spring and summer of 2003 and ham-handed when trying to explain his actions to investigators later that year.

Fitzgerald said that Libby tripped himself up when he was unable to recollect the timing of when he received information. “Mr. Libby … was telling Mr. Fleischer something on Monday that he claims to have learned on Thursday,” Fitzgerald noted.

The indictment lists nine separate incidents before the leaks began appearing in the press when Libby participated in conversations regarding the CIA’s employment of Wilson’s wife.

Libby made at least one inquiry about trying to establish a paper trail linking Plame to Joseph Wilson’s mission, asking Cheney’s legal counsel, David Addington, about “paperwork that would exist if a person who was sent on an overseas trip by the CIA had a spouse who worked at the CIA,” the indictment states.

Libby eventually discussed Plame’s CIA employment with Cooper and Judith Miller of the New York Times. He also claimed to have first heard about it from NBC’s Tim Russert, but Russert told investigators no such conversation took place.

Plame’s link to the CIA was first reported in a July 14, 2003, column by Novak, who had spoken to Rove about Wilson days earlier, the indictment says.

Democrats reacted to Novak’s column by demanding an investigation to ferret out the leakers and in September 2003, the Justice Department began one.

According to the indictment, Libby lied to FBI agents during interviews in October and November of 2003 and later to the grand jury regarding his conversations with journalists.

The loss of Libby is a blow to a White House in which his boss, Cheney, has exercised significant influence, especially 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.” “He helped put into words Cheney’s vision of America’s role in the post-Cold War world.”

Libby became an early advocate for military action against Iraq in the days after the terrorist assaults of Sept. 11, 2001.

Libby was with Cheney that day as Secret Service agents hurried the vice president out of the West Wing to a secret location.

He has become so instrumental in Cheney’s office that Mary Matalin, a former Cheney aide, calls Libby “Cheney’s Cheney.”

While it was not immediately clear why no one was charged for leaking, Fitzgerald said federal laws regulating the disclosure of classified information “in some places are very clear, and (in) some places they’re not so clear.” But he said criticism that his case somehow lacked legitimacy because he didn’t bring such a charge was off base.

“That talking point won’t fly,” Fitzgerald said.

He also said that if the facts of the indictment are true, and “we were to walk away from this and not charge obstruction of justice or perjury, we might as well just hand in our jobs, because our jobs in the criminal justice system are to make sure people tell us the truth. And when it’s a high-level official in a very sensitive investigation, it is a very, very serious matter that no one should take lightly.”

Fitzgerald said it would have been impossible to get to the bottom of the case without the cooperation, willing or unwilling, of the journalists who dealt with Libby.

Several news organizations fought subpoenas or initially resisted requests for cooperation, fearing that Fitzgerald was intruding on the confidential relationships between journalists and their sources.

One reporter, Miller, was jailed for 85 days until a source, who turned out to be Libby, reassured her that he voluntarily released her from a pledge of confidentiality.

Fitzgerald was appointed special counsel in the case in December 2003 by his friend and former boss, James Comey, who was under pressure from congressional Democrats to find an independent investigator.

Comey was then the deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft, who recused himself because of his close political ties to the White House.

Fitzgerald declined to be specific when he was asked if it was simply a case of Libby’s word against that of three journalists. But he did say, “You’re right. Let’s go to a trial … And our burden is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. By indicting him, we’re committing to doing that. But he is presumed innocent, and let’s let the process play out.”

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