As Trial Begins, Cheney’s Ex-Aide Is Still a Puzzle
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 — Paradox seems to define I. Lewis Libby Jr., who remains a bit mysterious even to close colleagues. He is the White House policy enforcer who also wrote a literary novel; a buttoned-down Washington lawyer who likes knocking back tequila shots in cowboy bars and hurtling down mountains on skis and bikes; and a 56-year-old intellectual known to all by his childhood nickname, Scooter.
But now comes the most baffling paradox of all, as Mr. Libby, former chief of staff and alter ego to Vice President Dick Cheney, began his trial in federal court here on Tuesday on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. By all accounts a first-rate legal mind and a hypercautious aide whose discretion frustrated reporters, he is charged with repeatedly lying to a grand jury and to the F.B.I. about his leaks to the news media in the battle over Iraq war intelligence.
“I don’t often use the word ‘incomprehensible,’ but this is incomprehensible to me,” said Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East troubleshooter who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He’s a lawyer who’s as professional and competent as anyone I know. He’s a friend, and when he says he’s innocent, I believe him. I just can’t account for this case.”
Among Mr. Libby’s friends and former colleagues, the case brought by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, is considered not only unjust, but also a terrible irony.
“He’s going to be the poster boy for the criminalization of politics, and he’s not even political,” said Mary Matalin, Mr. Cheney’s former political adviser.
Critics of the Bush administration say nothing was more political than the administration’s use of defective intelligence to take the country to war, in which Mr. Libby was deeply involved. At a time of deep public distress over events in Iraq, the trial will inevitably carry symbolic weight beyond the legal question of whether Mr. Libby lied.
He was “Cheney’s Cheney,” in Ms. Matalin’s words, “an absolutely salient translator” of the ideas of the man considered perhaps the most powerful vice president in history. Mr. Libby had a role in virtually every national security initiative of the administration’s first five years.
It was Mr. Libby who helped assemble a dossier on Saddam Hussein and unconventional weapons and ties to Al Qaeda for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, fighting to keep in the speech evidence that Mr. Powell found questionable. It was Mr. Libby, at Mr. Cheney’s direction, who repeatedly spoke to reporters to rebut Joseph C. Wilson IV after Mr. Wilson, a former ambassador, publicly accused the White House of distorting intelligence.
“Libby didn’t plan the war,” said John Prados, a historian of national security who wrote a book in 2004 on the flawed Iraq intelligence. “But he did enable the administration to set out on that course. He was the facilitator.”
Both fans and critics of Mr. Libby might be surprised by some anecdotes from Yale, where Mr. Libby graduated in 1972. Fellow students recall his helping silkscreen T-shirts proclaiming “solidarity” between Yalies and the Black Panthers and going with shoulder-length blond hair and in a leather jacket to help at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration.
A couple of years after graduation, a classmate, Donald Hindle, met Mr. Libby, then a student at the Columbia Law School, and noted a decidedly nonpolitical talent.
“He could remember not only all 79 ‘Star Trek’ episodes, as I could, but he knew all the titles, too,” Mr. Hindle said. “I think he always liked fantasy.”
Mr. Libby and his brother Hank, a retired tax lawyer, were the first in the family to graduate from college. Their father, Irve Lewis Libby Sr., had dropped out to support his family in the Depression. The senior Mr. Libby, who called his son Scooter after seeing him scurry about his crib, became a successful businessman. The family lived in the Washington region, Miami and Connecticut before Scooter graduated from the Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts.
At college, Mr. Libby began writing a novel, a mystery set at a country inn in 1903 in Japan, where he had spent the summer of 1969. He rewrote the book off and on for 25 years before it was published as “The Apprentice” in 1996, to glowing reviews (“a small triumph of meticulous craftsmanship,” The Washington Post said), though after his indictment The New Yorker mocked its sex scenes.
Also at Yale, Mr. Libby took courses from a young political science instructor, Paul D. Wolfowitz, who became the chief intellectual theorist of the Iraq war. Seven years older, Mr. Wolfowitz was the critical mentor in recruiting Mr. Libby to the neoconservative camp, hiring him first in 1981 as a speechwriter and an Asia analyst at the State Department under President Ronald Reagan and in 1989 as a strategist in the Defense Department, headed by Mr. Cheney in the administration of the first President George Bush.
“He was fascinated by Paul’s thinking,” recalled a friend, Francis Fukuyama, who worked with him at the State Department. Some experts find the seeds of the current president’s assertive foreign policy in a 1992 military policy paper that Mr. Libby helped draft.
Between government stints, Mr. Libby practiced law with the firm of Leonard Garment, counsel to President Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Garment remembers him as “reliable, immensely hard working and guarded.”
Presented with the seemingly intractable tax problems of a fugitive commodities trader, Marc Rich, Mr. Libby “went off for a year and worked on it, closeted with his own intellect,” Mr. Garment said.
He emerged with a creative analysis, Mr. Garment added, that would ultimately help persuade President Bill Clinton to pardon Mr. Rich, an act that Republicans criticized because Mr. Rich’s former wife, Denise, was a Democratic donor.
It was in Mr. Garment’s firm that Mr. Libby met his future wife, Harriet Grant, a lawyer and onetime Democratic staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she handled Anita F. Hill’s challenge to the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.
“She probably cancels his vote every four years,” said Jackson Hogen, a friend of Mr. Libby since his Andover days, a ski partner and a liberal Democrat. “It’s a credit to Scooter that he can maintain a friend like me and a wife like her all these years.”
Friends praise Mr. Libby’s courtly manners and dry humor, but they also note his reserve. As a lawyer and an aide, he has generally advocated for others, whether Mr. Rich or Mr. Cheney. Many in Washington saw his views as indistinguishable from the vice president’s, but some friends say they are uncertain about his personal opinions.
“He never struck me, even knowing him as I do, as an ideologue,” said Mr. Fukuyama, who has skied with Mr. Libby and both of whose children were on the same Little League team. “I wouldn’t say I have a particularly good handle on his worldview.”
In 2001, when Mr. Cheney lured Mr. Libby from his $535-an-hour law practice to the White House, one attraction for the vice president was his discretion, said Juleanna Glover Weiss, Mr. Cheney’s former press secretary.
“Like Cheney, Scooter’s a tomb,” Ms. Glover Weiss said. “Information can go in, but most of the time it doesn’t come out.”
Yet it is clear that long before Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Libby, who studied the possibility of biological attacks in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, focused on the terrorist threat.
“What animates him is security,” Ms. Matalin said. “On 9/12, there were but a handful of people who had the strategic grasp of terrorism that he did.”
Some colleagues later wondered whether his focus on the threat had became too single-minded. Mr. Libby and his boss repeatedly pushed for widespread immunization against smallpox, disturbing others in the administration who worried about fatal reactions that some people might have.
C. Dean McGrath Jr., Mr. Libby’s deputy until the end of 2005, said that particularly after the shock of Sept. 11 “Scooter considered it to be part of his job to think about dire possibilities.”
By all accounts, Mr. Libby brought his worst-case approach to the debate over Mr. Hussein’s threat. When that debate led to the leak of a C.I.A. officer’s identity, the resulting criminal investigation produced one indictment, that of Mr. Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice. It landed just after the death of Mr. Libby’s mother and a fall that broke his foot and left him hobbling into the federal courthouse on crutches.
“He puts up a tough front,” said Mr. Hogen, his school and ski buddy. “But there’s a kind human being in there who’s really gotten beat up in this affair.”
Mr. Libby’s friends, including Mr. Cheney, have rallied behind him. The Hudson Institute, a research institution, has provided Mr. Libby with a place to work. His legal defense fund has a board that would be the envy of any conservative institution, including five former cabinet members, five former members of Congress and seven former ambassadors.
Friends say Mr. Libby, 56, has spent a lot of time at his home in McLean, Va., with his wife and children, a son in middle school and a daughter in elementary school. He has focused his legal acumen on a new client — himself.
Kenneth Adelman, a friend from the Reagan administration, invited the family for a week’s vacation in Colorado last summer and took Mr. Libby to lunch with a liberal, pacifist local columnist, Paul Andersen.
The two men had a long talk about wilderness and recited poetry from memory. Mr. Andersen learned later that he had been talking with a man whom he had considered a symbol for all that was wrong with an administration that he holds in contempt.
If Mr. Libby broke the law, Mr. Andersen said, he should be held accountable. But he said his views were more complicated after the lunch encounter.
“I got a feeling for him as a family man, a guy who likes the mountains,” Mr. Andersen said. “Later, it seemed like he was nursing some serious pain. It seemed a dreadful shame that circumstances can sometimes ruin lives.”