Washington trial forces Cheney into the spotlight

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The Independent US

Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff of US Vice-President Dick Cheney, goes on trial today in a long-awaited case that will include testimony from several top Bush officials and some of the biggest names in Washington journalism - not to mention the publicity-hating Mr Cheney.

Mr Libby, who is accused of perjury and obstruction of justice, is the most senior member of the current administration to face criminal charges. They stem from the convoluted "who-told-whom-when" saga stemming from the July 2003 revelation that Valerie Plame, the wife of Joseph Wilson, an ex-ambassador and fierce critic of the Iraq war, was a CIA agent.

Mr Libby is not accused of divulging her name - the potentially criminal offence that triggered the investigation by a special prosecutor - but of lying to a grand jury about his role in the leak. The entire affair obeys that ancient rule of Washington, that it is not the crime, but the cover-up, which is the real offence.

Today's proceedings at the federal courthouse a few blocks from Capitol Hill are expected to be confined to jury selection. The trial itself, which will offer tantalising snapshots of the way business is done in the uppermost echelons of power in the US, will get under way next week and will probably last a month or more.

The evidence presented may be incrediblycomplex: a tangled skein of meetings, discreet chats, phone calls and e-mails between reporters at which Ms Plame's real identity was batted around as a choice item of gossip, before the story eventually made its way into print via the veteran columnist and conservative insider Robert Novak. But any excess of complexity will be more than made up for by the celebrity of the witnesses.

Mr Novak is just one of the US capital's A-list journalists - along with White House officials like Karl Rove, Mr Bush's close adviser, and the President's former press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Other media heavyweights who could be shuffling uncomfortably in the witness box are Bob Woodward, the Washington Post senior editor-cum-court scribe of the Bush presidency, who seems to have been the first reporter to learn of Ms Plame's identity during research interviews for one of his books.

Unfortunately, Mr Woodward later admitted that this original source was not Mr Libby but the former deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, which would appear to weaken the case against Mr Libby.

Testifying as prosecution witnesses, however, may be Tim Russert, host of the top-rated Sunday talk show Meet the Press, and Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal to the prosecutor the identity of her source of information about Ms Plame - even though Ms Miller never actually wrote a word about it.

The biggest courtroom star of all, however, will be Mr Cheney, who last weekend called Mr Libby "one of the finest individuals I have ever known". Mr Cheney, the first sitting Vice-President to feature in a criminal trial, will testify for the defence, making the case that his former chief of staff was far too busy with great affairs of state to remember details of idle conversations with reporters.

It is not clear whether Mr Cheney will appear in court in person or give evidence by video-conference. Either way, however, his cross-examination by the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the most tenacious lawyers in the US, could be a courtroom clash for the age.

In the end, however, the outcome may not greatly matter. If Mr Libby is convicted, it is widely expected he will be pardoned by President Bush.