WASHINGTON -- The guilty verdicts yesterday against former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby made him the highest-level White House official convicted of a crime since the Iran-contra scandal 20 years ago and marks the latest fallout from the Bush administration's handling of the run-up to the war in Iraq.
Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was found guilty by a jury on four out of five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice and could receive a maximum of 25 years in prison. But under federal sentencing guidelines, he is expected to receive as few as two years. In addition, Libby could be fined up to $250,000 for each guilty count. Sentencing was set for June 5.
Libby remained free on a personal recognizance bond, and his lawyer said he would appeal.
"We have every confidence that ultimately Mr. Libby will be vindicated," Theodore Wells said. "We believe that he is totally innocent, and we intend to keep fighting."
Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald said he was "gratified" by the jury's verdict. "Any lie under oath is serious," he said, especially "in a national security investigation."
Libby was charged with lying to investigators about his role in a White House campaign to discredit a critic of the administration, an effort that led to the exposure of the critic's wife, undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame.
One juror said the panel did not believe Libby's claim that he learned of Plame's identity from a journalist, when evidence showed he had discussed her in several White House meetings before that.
"The primary thing that convinced us was his conversation with [NBC newsman Tim] Russert," said Denis Collins, who acted as spokesman for the 11-person panel. "Libby was told nine times about Plame before he talked to Russert."
The verdicts appeared to close the book on the widely followed CIA leak case, in which no one was charged with the crime of exposing Plame. Fitzgerald said he does not expect to file any additional charges.
"We're all going back to our day jobs," he said.
The conviction of such a high-ranking White House official was one more setback for the Bush administration, already laboring under low approval ratings, public impatience with the war in Iraq and a new Democratic majority in Congress.
Democrats immediately used the verdicts to lambaste the White House.
"It's about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
At the White House, deputy press secretary Dana Perino said President Bush "respected the jury's verdict and was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family." Cheney said he was "very disappointed" with the verdict and lauded Libby's "many years of public service."
The rendering of judgment by the 11-member panel - reduced by one after a retired museum curator was dismissed last week for having unauthorized contacts about the case - came on the 10th day of deliberations after a month of testimony. The jury acquitted Libby on one count of making false statements to the FBI about a conversation he had with a reporter.
Libby displayed a little emotion as the verdict was read shortly after noon. When the first "guilty" was uttered by the jury forewoman, Libby blinked rapidly but otherwise maintained a blank face. After the full verdict was rendered, Libby turned toward his wife, Harriet Grant, with a stoic smile.
The trial was the first of a senior White House official in more than a decade, and the first conviction since the 1980s when former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North was convicted for his involvement in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair; the verdict was thrown out on appeal.
"A conviction at that high level within the White House is almost unheard of in our history," said Guy Singer, a former Justice Department prosecutor who specialized in public corruption cases, including the conviction of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "It is exceedingly rare that a prosecution is initiated, let alone concluded, at this level. For such a high-ranking member to be convicted of obstructing justice is really astounding."
Fitzgerald said "the seriousness of the lies" that Libby told more than justified the prosecution.
"We could not walk away from that," he said to reporters on the courthouse steps. "It's inconceivable that any responsible prosecutor could walk away and say 'there's nothing there.'"
Legal experts said that under federal sentencing guidelines Libby could receive a sentence in the range of 21 to 27 months in prison, which could go higher depending on whether the prosecution urges a stiffer penalty.
"If the government wants to go full-court press, they could argue ... in the range of five to seven years, and maybe more," said Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert and professor at Ohio State University law school.
The guidelines, he said, allow for a sentence to be augmented where a defendant is convicted of covering up a serious crime, which in the case of Libby involved the possible disclosure of classified information.
He also said that a new federal law gives victims the right to be involved in the sentencing process. That could mean that Plame, who retired from the CIA after her cover was blown, could be a witness in any sentencing proceeding.
Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Miller write for the Los Angeles Times.
Obstruction of justice for misleading the grand jury - one count.
Lying to the FBI during interviews - one count.
Perjury for lying under oath to grand jury - two counts.
Lying to the FBI - one count.
Sentencing - June 5. Could receive up to 25 years in prison, but a sentence as low as two years is more likely. [ Source: Wire services]