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Cheney Ex-Aide Pleads Not Guilty to Indictment Charges

By Eric Lichtblau


I. Lewis Libby Jr. pleaded not guilty to obstruction and perjury charges on Thursday in a case that lawyers on both sides acknowledged could stretch well into next year because of complications over access to classified material.

Lawyers for Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, signaled at his arraignment on a five-count indictment that they would also seek to raise First Amendment issues in his defense. The lawyers would not expand on their strategy, but legal analysts said the defense might be planning to seek access to reporters’ notes regarding the leaking of a CIA officer’s identity, setting the stage for another round of showdowns with journalists who have proved central to the investigation.

Complicating the case still further is what the special prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, told the judge on Thursday was a “voluminous” amount of classified material related to the investigation. The process of declassifying that material, blacking out especially secret material, and granting Libby’s new defense lawyers security clearance to review it is likely to take months, lawyers said.

The day’s events dampened hopes among some Republicans for a quick resolution to a case that has already cast a long shadow over the White House. Immediately after the arraignment, Libby’s lawyers sought to quell any speculation about a possible plea deal to resolve the politically volatile case.

Theodore V. Wells Jr., a prominent Manhattan lawyer added to the defense team just before the arraignment, said, “In pleading not guilty, he has declared to the world that he is innocent, he has declared that he intends to fight the charges in the indictment, and he has declared that he wants to clear his good name and he wants a jury trial.”

Joining Wells at the defense table was William Jeffress Jr., another noted defense lawyer in Washington. Both men are regarded as skilled trial lawyers.

Wells successfully defended political clients in criminal cases, including Robert G. Torricelli, who was a Democratic senator from New Jersey; Mike Espy, a former Clinton secretary of agriculture; and Raymond J. Donovan, a former Reagan secretary of labor.

Jeffress won a case for former President Richard M. Nixon on public access to the Watergate tapes. Joseph A. Tate, the lawyer who represented Libby through his grand jury appearances, said he would also remain on the defense team as one of the three lead counsels.

At his arraignment, Libby waived his right to a speedy trial, as lawyers on both sides pointed to the complicated and protracted nature of the case. Judge Reggie B. Walton of U.S. District Court said, “I want to try to have this matter resolved as expeditiously as possible,” but he also said he understood that the unusual complications might make that difficult. He agreed to schedule the next hearing in the case on Feb. 3 to give the lawyers time to resolve issues involving classified documents.

The prospect that the case will progress slowly means that the White House may be forced to buffet extended criticism of Libby’s conduct — and by implication, of the administration’s polices on Iraq — through 2006.