Cheney's aide pleads not guilty in CIA leak case

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The Independent US

Given the potential of his forthcoming trial to rock the Bush administration to its core by exposing the way in which officials allegedly manipulated intelligence to make the case for war in Iraq, his appearance in the wood-panelled Washington courtroom yesterday was brief and uneventful.

Asked if he wished to enter a plea, he affirmed that he did and said: "With respect, your honour, I plead not guilty."

Standing just a few feet away, the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, then told the court his team was working to declassify the "voluminous" amount of material on which it has based their charges. The essential elements of this information will be handed to the defence lawyers next, he said. However, the defence team would have to receive special security clearance before they can receive all the material.

After the hearing Mr Libby was fingerprinted and photographed. He then emerged with his team of four lawyers, one of whom, Ted Wells, a prominent criminal defence lawyer, said: "In pleading not guilty he has declared to the world that he is innocent. He has declared that he intends to fight the charges in the indictment and he has declared that he wants to clear his good name, and he wants a jury trial."

Mr Libby, 55, the former chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, is charged with lying to investigators and the grand jury members investigating the leaking of the identity of a covert CIA operative, Valerie Plame. He is also charged with obstructing justice and faces up to 30 years in jail if convicted.

The charges relate to what Mr Libby told investigators of his conversations with reporters about Ms Plame. His lawyers have said they will argue that he did not intentionally mislead anyone and that, as a busy government official, he could not be expected to remember the details of all his conversations.

Judge Reggie Walton adjourned the case until 3 February 2006. When both parties return next year, the proceedings could focus on the activities of senior White House officials as they plotted to take the country to war. Mr Libby's boss could be among the witnesses who will be giving evidence.

Of more immediate concern to the Bush administration may be the fate of Karl Rove, the President's political adviser and the deputy chief-of-staff for policy, who is still being investigated. There is evidence that senior officials in the White House and the Republican Party are questioning whether Mr Rove's position remains tenable.

The Washington Post said senior officials believe Mr Rove will at least have to issue a formal apology for misleading his colleagues and the public about his role in the outing of Ms Plame.

Mr Libby's indictment referred to "Official A" as one of the people who spoke with columnist Robert Novak, the journalist who identified Ms Plame as a CIA operative. It is believed that Mr Rove is "Official A" and he could yet be indicted to stand trial alongside Mr Libby.

One Republican Party strategist in regular contact with senior officials said: "Karl does not have enemies in the White House but there are a lot of people wondering how they can put this behind them if the cloud remains over Karl."

Senator Trent Lott, a former Senate leader, said: "The question is: should he be the deputy chief-of-staff for policy under the current circumstances?"

Ms Plame is the wife of a former ambassador, Joe Wilson, who publicly challenged White House claims that Iraq was seeking to re-establish a nuclear weapons programme by attempting to purchase uranium from Niger. Little more than a week after Mr Wilson made the claims, his wife's name and identity were revealed by Mr Novak.

* Italy's spymaster has denied charges that his agents knowingly gave the US and Britain forged documents suggesting Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa. Nicolo Pollari, the head of the SISMI military intelligence agency, was questioned by a parliamentary commission yesterday.

After the hearing, Senator Massimo Brutti told journalists that SISMI had told the US in January 2003 that the dossier was fake.