WASHINGTON -- A federal judge refused yesterday to delay the start of the prison sentence for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. in the CIA leak case while he appeals his conviction, meaning he could be ordered to surrender within two months.
The ruling intensifies the legal and political drama surrounding Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice.
Judge Reggie B. Walton said yesterday that he found no reason to postpone Libby's sentence of 2 1/2 years in prison for four felony counts. Defense lawyers had asked that he be allowed to remain free while pursuing appeals.
Walton's decision means that the defense lawyers will probably ask a federal appeals court to block the sentence, a long-shot move. It also sharpens interest in a question being asked by Libby's supporters and critics alike: Will President Bush pardon Libby?
The president has expressed sympathy for Libby and his family but has not tipped his hand on the pardon issue.
If the president does not pardon him, and if an appeals court refuses to second-guess Walton's decision, Libby will probably be ordered to report to prison in six to eight weeks. Federal prison authorities will decide where. "Unless the Court of Appeals overturns my ruling, he will have to report," Walton said.
After the hearing yesterday, Libby was taken to a basement probation office, where he surrendered his passport. Later, he left the federal courthouse silently and with a stony face, as he did daily throughout his trial and after his sentencing June 5.
There were no surprises at yesterday's court session, since Walton had said that the evidence against Libby was overwhelming and that he saw no realistic prospects for a successful appeal. Still, the hearing was not without drama.
For one thing, Walton revealed that he had received threatening letters in recent weeks. At first he just discarded them, he said, but as they kept coming, he began collecting them and has turned them over to the authorities.
Libby's lawyers made a last-ditch argument yesterday, asserting that the special prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, had been given too much independence. The judge dismissed that argument, saying that Fitzgerald was subordinate to the Justice Department and thus could have been dismissed.
One telling moment came as Walton referred to a motion filed by 12 law professors asserting that there were issues that could be appealed in the case. The judge dismissed the motion, remarking acidly that it was "not worthy of a first-year law student."
Libby, once one of the most powerful men in the Bush administration, was undone by the accounts he gave to FBI agents and grand jurors who were investigating the leaking of the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative whose husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, wrote critically about the administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq. Libby was a principal architect of the war.
The jurors who convicted Libby rejected his claims that memory loss, rather than any attempt to deceive, lay behind any inconsistencies in his accounts to the grand jury and FBI agents.
Libby was not charged with leaking Plame's name and affiliation, which first appeared publicly in a column by Robert D. Novak on July 14, 2003. Novak's sources were later revealed to be Richard L. Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, and Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser in the White House. Neither man was charged with violating a federal law prohibiting the disclosure of the identities of CIA officers.