I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was walking down a nearly deserted street in Des Moines, Iowa, last year after a long day on the campaign trail with his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby encountered a group of reporters who had just finished dinner at a saloon-style restaurant.
"Heading for the bar?" one reporter asked.
No, Libby said, pointing to an alternate destination across the street: a storefront with a sign advertising the services of a bail bondsman.
It was a small dose of gallows humor at a time when it still seemed safe to joke about a federal leak investigation that had yet to cause any serious ripples for a White House team cruising toward reelection. But Libby's quip was also an acknowledgment that a threat was looming, and that a day like today might come.
Libby resigned today after being indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury by a grand jury investigating the disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Wilson, also known by her unmarried name, Valerie Plame.
The indictment represents a significant blow to the Bush administration brain trust. Karl Rove, who escaped indictment but remains under investigation by the special prosecutor, is a more powerful and better known figure, a political operative who helped orchestrate George Bush's rise from Texas politics to the presidency.
But Libby has had a more direct hand in the national security decisions that have largely defined this administration, particularly the invasion of Iraq. He is the closest adviser to the most powerful vice president in modern history. And in a workplace where a single job title carries considerable clout, Libby held three: chief of staff to the vice president, national security adviser to the vice president, and assistant to the president.
Libby has varied interests — he is a skiing fanatic, a fan of the occasional shot of tequila, and the author of a well-received novel, "The Apprentice," set in a blizzard in turn of the century Japan. "He's a little edgy," said an administration official who has worked with him, adding that Libby is fond of pursuits "you don't think of a guy named Scooter doing.'"
Libby's predicament is mind-boggling to many of his closest colleagues and friends, who say he is not a conservative ideologue, and is known for his discretion.
Jackson Hogen, Libby's roommate at Yale University and a frequent skiing companion, recalled probing Libby on a ski lift several years ago for his views on how the administration planned to confront North Korea. Libby deflected the question by joking that he believed the United States "should adopt a policy of vigorous name-calling," Hogen wrote in a 2003 column in Ski magazine.
"By nature and profession he is someone who prizes discretion and saying the right thing at the right time," Hogen said in a telephone interview this week. "It does seem odd that he would be the one shoved into this particular noose. But this tale is nothing if not strange."
Libby, 55, was raised in Connecticut, the son of an investment banker who gave him the "Scooter" nickname after watching the boy scoot across his crib. Libby attended the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he was a prominent figure on campus and the head of the debating society.
His political leanings were Democratic in the late 1960s. He supported the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. But at Yale, Libby enrolled in a class taught by a young professor named Paul D. Wolfowitz, and became enamored of the neoconservative view that the United States should be more assertive in spreading American-style democracy overseas.
In 1981, it was Wolfowitz who launched Libby's career in government. Wolfowitz, an assistant secretary of State during the Reagan administration, recruited Libby from his law practice in Philadelphia to become a speechwriter at the State Department.
Later, in the first Bush administration, Wolfowitz brought Libby to the Pentagon as his assistant. The two helped draft a post-Cold War manifesto urging the United States to establish itself as an unrivaled superpower. They also disagreed with President George H.W. Bush's decision not to press toward Baghdad after expelling Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait.
"We objected to it," Libby said of the decision to halt the war, according to an account in "Rise of the Vulcans," a history of Bush's war cabinet by former Los Angeles Times reporter James Mann. "I was floored by the decision. Neither of us liked it."
It was during his stint at the Pentagon that Libby caught the notice of Cheney, then serving as secretary of Defense.
Libby spent much of the 1990s working at a Washington, D.C. law firm, where his client list included Marc Rich, the wealthy fugitive who was given a controversial last-minute pardon by President Bill Clinton.
When Bush was elected in 1998, Cheney quickly tapped Libby to be one of his top aides. And after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the two were among the leading proponents inside the administration that the United States' response should include confronting Iraq.
Indeed, Libby played a key, behind-the-scenes role in making the case for war. His office drafted a 48-page document, drawing on dozens of shards of intelligence on Iraq, that was the basis for Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 presentation to the United Nations.
Powell agreed to give the speech only after discarding what he considered shaky claims about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to Al Qaeda. Even so, the case crumbled completely when no weapons were found after the war.
As the war rationale began to unravel, the White House sought to contain the political damage. And it was in an effort to combat a particularly fierce critic that Libby stepped into legal jeopardy.
In 2003, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson accused the administration of twisting intelligence by claiming Iraq had sought to acquire uranium for a nuclear weapons program. Wilson said he had been sent on a trip to Africa to investigate that claim, and that his findings showed it to be false.
Weeks later, Wilson's wife, a covert CIA operative named Valerie Plame, was identified in print by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. Other reporters had also been told about Wilson's wife by White House officials, a campaign that Wilson has said was designed to punish him by ruining his wife's career.
At first the White House denied that Rove or Libby were behind the leaks. But in recent months, the investigation has shown that both had been involved in the campaign against Wilson. New York Times reporter Judith Miller revealed that Libby had raised the issue of Wilson's wife during at least three separate interviews, though she said she did not get Plame's name from Libby.
Libby testified before the grand jury investigating the leak at least twice, and is said to have acknowledged having conversations with other reporters about Wilson's wife.
Libby has expressed to close friends a desire to devote more time to writing, skiing and his family. He is married to Harriet Grant, a former lawyer on the Democratic staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The couple have two children and live in suburban Virginia.
When he was in law school at Columbia University, he spent a winter at Breckenridge, Colo., where he alternated between hitting the slopes and shutting himself in a lodge to crank out an early draft of the novel that would take him 20 years to complete.
Libby couldn't resist displaying his prose style in a letter he wrote to Miller, urging her to end her 85-day stint in jail and cooperate with the investigation. His words also displayed a capacity to understand the sort of longings one must feel in a cell.
"You went to jail in the summer," Libby wrote to Miller. "It is fall now.... Out west, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work — and life."
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.