Libby sentenced to two-and-a-half years

Former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison Tuesday for lying and obstructing the CIA leak investigation.

Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, stood calmly before a packed courtroom as a federal judge said the evidence overwhelmingly proved his guilt and left the courthouse without commenting.

"People who occupy these types of positions, where they have the welfare and security of nation in their hands, have a special obligation to not do anything that might create a problem," U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said.

Walton did not set a date for Libby to report to prison. Though he saw no reason to let Libby remain free pending appeal, Walton said he would accept written arguments on the issue and rule later.

Deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino, accompanying President Bush on Air Force One from the Czech Republic to Germany Tuesday, told reporters that Bush "felt terrible for the family, especially for his wife and kids."

She said Bush would comment no further on the case at this time.

Cheney issued a statement saying he was "deeply saddened by this tragedy."

"I relied on him heavily in my capacity as secretary of defense and as vice president," it said. "The defense has indicated it plans to appeal the conviction in the case. Speaking as friends, we hope that our system will return a final result consistent with what we know of this fine man."

Libby was convicted in March of lying and obstructing an investigation into the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.

The highest-ranking White House official convicted in a government scandal since the Iran-Contra affair, Libby has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

"It is respectfully my hope that the court will consider, along with the jury verdict, my whole life," Libby said in brief remarks to the judge.

Sitting with Libby's wife Harriet Grant during the sentencing were conservative commentators Mary Matalin, a former Cheney aide, and Victoria Toensing, a former deputy assistant attorney general during the Reagan administration.

Walton fined Libby $250,000 and placed him on probation for two years following his release from prison. Walton did not immediately address whether Libby could remain free pending appeal.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons will decide where Libby serves his sentence and set a reporting date. The agency tries to place prisoners close to home whenever possible.

With letters of support from several former military commanders and White House and State Department officials, Libby asked for no jail time. His supporters cited a government career in which Libby helped win the Cold War and the first Gulf War.

"He has fallen from public grace," defense attorney Theodore Wells said. "It is a tragic fall, a tragic fall."

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald called on Libby to serve up to three years in prison.

"We need to make the statement that the truth matters ever so much," Fitzgerald said.

The prosecutor did not talk to reporters as he left the courthouse.

Libby's attorneys sought no jail time. They argued that it's unfair to increase the sentence simply because of the nature of the investigation, particularly since Fitzgerald never proved the leak was a crime.

"No one was ever charged. Nobody ever pleaded guilty," attorney William Jeffress said. "The government did not establish the existence of an offense."

In support of Libby's bid for probation, many prominent people wrote letters to Walton. Among the letter writers were: former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

"My hope and prayer is that his outstanding record, his many contributions to our country and his value as a citizen, will be considered carefully," Rumsfeld wrote.

Probation officers had recommend a sentencing range of 15-21 months, but left open the possibility that defense attorneys could argue for less.

Libby was convicted of one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury to the grand jury and one count of lying to the FBI about how he learned Plame's identity and whom he told. The verdict came after a seven-week trial that focused new attention on the Bush administration's much-criticized handling of intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war.

In the end, jurors said they did not believe Libby's main defense: that he hadn't lied but merely had a bad memory.

Their decisions made Libby the highest-ranking White House official convicted in a government scandal since National Security Adviser John Poindexter in the Iran-Contra affair two decades ago.

Walton put the sentence on hold until he could hear legal analysis from probation officials about the way the sentence was structured technically. Walton said he would make the sentence official next week.

The case cost Cheney his most trusted adviser, and the trial revealed Cheney's personal obsession with criticism of the war's justification.

It was Cheney who first revealed Plame's identity to Libby in June 2003 after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, began questioning the administration's prewar intelligence. Several other officials testified that they, too, discussed the CIA operative with Libby as Wilson's criticism mounted.

Libby says he forgot those conversations and was surprised to learn about Plame a month later from NBC newsman Tim Russert. Russert, the government's star witness at trial, testified the two men never discussed Plame. Fitzgerald said Libby concocted the Russert story to shield him from prosecution for improperly handling classified information.

Libby was not charged with leaking Plame's identity, nor were the two initial sources of the leak — Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and White House political adviser Karl Rove.

Libby's supporters criticized Fitzgerald for pushing ahead with the investigation despite knowing the source of the leak early on. Fitzgerald said he needed to know whether the leak was authorized by senior government officials and spoke in court about "a cloud" over Cheney.

In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Wilson said he and his wife were sorry for Libby's family.

"That he would knowingly lie, perjure himself and obstruct a legitimate criminal investigation is incomprehensible," Wilson said. "It is our hope that he will now cooperate with Special Counsel Fitzgerald in his efforts to get to the truth. As Mr. Fitzgerald has said, a cloud remains over the vice president."

Though the trial is over, the legal fight over the leak continues. Plame and Wilson are suing Libby, Cheney and other senior Bush administration officials for violating their privacy rights. A judge is considering whether to dismiss the lawsuit.

Plame is also suing the CIA for allegedly holding up publication of her memoir, in which she wants to discuss details about her 20-year career at the intelligence agency. CIA officials say the material she wants to publish is classified.