WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff pleaded not guilty Thursday in the CIA leak scandal, marking the start of what could be a long road to a trial in which Cheney and other top Bush administration officials could be summoned to testify.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby entered the plea in front of U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, a former prosecutor who has spent two decades as a judge in the nation's capital.
Once the charges were read and the judge asked for his response, Libby said: "With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty."
Libby, who is recovering from a foot injury, leaned his crutches against a podium from which lawyers normally question witnesses or address the court. As the charges were read, he stood with his recently expanded legal team at the table reserved for the defense during trials.
During the 10-minute hearing, Walton set Libby's next court appearance for Feb. 3 and learned from the lawyers they had no idea when they would be ready for trial.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald estimated it would take two weeks for the government to present its case against Libby, and the timing would depend on pretrial motions by his attorneys.
William Jeffress, one of the lawyers Libby hired this week to bolster his defense team, told the judge, "It may be a little early" to predict when they would be ready for trial. Jeffress said several First Amendment and national security issues would have to be resolved by the court before a trial could be held.
Among the issues is whether journalists will be compelled to testify during the trial and how quickly Libby's lawyers would receive security clearances so they can review classified documents that might prove useful in his defense.
Outside the courthouse, another new member of Libby's legal team said Libby wants to fight the charges in court, not in the press. "In pleading not guilty he has declared to the world that he is innocent," said attorney Ted Wells. "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."
Libby signaled his determination to fight the charges after Friday's grand jury indictment, and in the past few days hired Jeffress and Wells, two well-known defense lawyers, to assist in his defense.
Wells won acquittals for former Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy and former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan. He is a partner at the New York-based firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Jeffress is from the firm Baker Botts, where Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James A. Baker is a senior partner. Jeffress has won acquittals for public officials accused of extortion, perjury, money laundering, and vote-buying, his firm's Web site says.
Libby was charged with lying to investigators and the grand jury about leaking to reporters the CIA identity of the wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson. Valerie Plame's name was published by conservative columnist Robert Novak after Wilson accused the administration of twisting intelligence in the run-up to the war to exaggerate the Iraqi threat from weapons of mass destruction.
The indictment says Libby got information about Plame's identity in June of 2003 from Cheney, the State Department and the CIA, then spread it to New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper. Libby told FBI agents and a federal grand jury that his information had come from NBC reporter Tim Russert.
Russert says he and Libby never discussed Wilson or his wife.
Miller, who never wrote a story, said Libby told her about the CIA connection of Wilson's wife. Cooper said Libby was one of his sources for a story identifying the CIA connection of Wilson's wife.
Libby attorney Joseph Tate said inconsistencies in recollections among people regarding long-ago events should not be charged as crimes. Libby is accused of one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of lying to FBI agents and two counts of perjury before a federal grand jury.
Senate Democrats seized on the Libby indictment to put the Bush administration on the defensive, focusing attention on the possible manipulation of prewar intelligence on Iraq and the failure by Senate Republicans to promptly investigate the issue.
Democrats are pressing for the intelligence committee, among other things, to examine the administration's strongly worded prewar statements on the Iraqi threat and whether they match up with the actual intelligence.
It also wants to scrutinize the role of the prowar Iraq National Congress, an exile group run by Ahmad Chalabi, in feeding information from defectors to the Pentagon and to Cheney's office.
"Any line of questioning that has brought us too close to the White House has been thwarted," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee. "We have been undermined, avoided, put off, and vilified by the other side."