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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 March 2007, 18:26 GMT
Trial reveals White House secrets
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

One of the most remarkable Washington trials in a generation has come to a close with the verdict that a top White House official tried to block a CIA leak investigation.

Lewis "Scooter" Libby outside the Washington courthouse where his trial took place, Feb 2007
Libby was accused of covering up attacks on a critic
But by the time the verdict came down, the guilt or innocence of Lewis "Scooter" Libby - once Vice-President Dick Cheney's top aide and one of the highest-ranking White House officials ever to be tried - was almost beside the point.

The important thing was seeing how the Bush administration worked behind closed doors, said Lawrence E Walsh, the special prosecutor who investigated the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal nearly 20 years ago.

"To throw light on this kind of nitty-gritty detail every so often is very important. Otherwise [administrations] get out of hand even more than they already have," he told the BBC News website.

Set-piece speech

The courthouse drama revealed the inner workings of a White House under siege over one of the reasons given for going to war in Iraq.

Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame in an April 2006 file photo
Ms Plame's identity was disclosed after her husband published doubts

The situation quickly spun further and further out of control for the White House, pitting the vice-president and his aide against other Bush officials in the scramble to deny responsibility for leaks and attacks on critics.

The scandal all began with an alleged piece of evidence that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy ingredients for a nuclear bomb from Niger in Africa.

But the man who had once been sent to investigate the claim - former diplomat Joseph Wilson - doubted it was true, and after the invasion made increasingly vocal efforts to share his doubts.

He first briefed journalists anonymously about a trip he had taken to Niger, and then, in July 2003, he went to the New York Times and to the television stations to say in public that the White House was wrong.

He had no faith in his ability to carry off this tale and no faith in the goodwill of these men - better, he knew, not to be caught
from The Apprentice,
a novel by "Scooter" Libby

Just over a week later, his wife Valerie Plame was identified as a CIA employee.

Revealing the identity of an undercover CIA agent can be a crime.

There is dispute about whether Ms Plame was indeed covert agent, but regardless of her status, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into who had leaked her CIA connection.

The investigators never charged anyone over the leak, but they did charge Libby with lying to them and trying to obstruct their investigation.

'Upset' by attack

That prompted a trial at which current and former White House officials testified that Mr Cheney had been intensely interested in Mr Wilson's attack - perhaps because Mr Wilson claimed the vice-president's office had prompted the question that sent him.

Mr Cheney had been "upset" and "disturbed", Libby told leak investigators.

Vice-President Dick Cheney boards his plane in a Feb 2007 photo
Mr Cheney was deeply involved in events, the court heard

And it seems that he set out to defend himself.

Mr Cheney and Libby sought more information about Mr Wilson, insiders testified.

And Libby told a number of people about the link between Mr Wilson, his wife Ms Plame, and the CIA, recipients of the information said.

Ms Plame's identity was not the only leak coming out of the vice-president's office, Mr Libby testified to the grand jury investigating the Plame disclosure.

In order to defend himself against Mr Wilson's accusations, Mr Cheney persuaded the president to authorise the declassification of part of one of the government's most secret intelligence briefings, the National Intelligence Estimate.

But only Mr Cheney and Libby knew the president had done that, leaving other key aides shocked to hear the vice-presidential aide leaking it to reporters by phone.

And because so few people knew about the declassification, some administration officials were left arguing in meetings that it should be made public when other colleagues present at the meetings had already started revealing sections of it.

Scapegoat or hatchet man?

Libby's lawyers argued that he was being made a scapegoat for the misdeeds of other White House players closer to the president.

The prosecution made the case that Libby had done his boss's dirty work and had then lied to cover his tracks.

Libby's critics will argue that he should have known better.

And, like the prosecution, which played tapes of Libby's testimony to the grand jury, they have his own words to use as evidence.

A decade ago, Libby published a novel, The Apprentice, set in a snowbound mountain inn.

Its main character considers lying if he is caught by enemies at a crucial juncture in the plot, but hopes that will not be necessary.

"He had no faith in his ability to carry off this tale, and no faith in the goodwill of these men," Mr Libby wrote in his book. "Better, he knew, not to be caught."

Libby, unfortunately for him, proved unable to follow his own advice.

How the Libby case unfolded

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