The New Man To See

The vice president's chief of staff and national-security adviser, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, wants to be anonymous, but his personality sometimes gets the better of him. A slight figure, taciturn like his boss, Libby rarely speaks to reporters. But in April at a White House Correspondents Dinner after-party, he challenged various well-known journalists to drink tequila shots. Most of the reporters got drunk; Libby did not. "Typical Libby," says Rep. Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio. "He was probably doing every other one."

Libby is the most powerful Washington figure most people never heard of. "He is viewed as an adviser to the president, not as staff. That is very unusual," says Portman, a friend of Libby's. As Congress begins to investigate whether the Bush administration hyped the WMD threat in Iraq, Libby's role is likely to come under scrutiny. Libby, like his boss, is known as a probing questioner of intelligence analysts. The question is whether he was too aggressive.

Libby is close to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who describes him as "one of the smartest and most perceptive men I have ever worked with." But Libby is not really a neocon. His world view is closer to that of the vice president, who cares less about transforming the world than about protecting America from attack. Libby has a playful, risk-taking side. An excellent skier who relishes going straight down through the trees, he is also a published novelist. He wrote a sexy, slightly mystical murder mystery, "The Apprentice," set in rural Japan at the time of the Russo-Japanese War ("strikingly original," wrote The Washington Post's reviewer). But he is grim when he discusses the threat of bio-warfare.

Libby has been worrying about the dangers of a germ attack since the '91 gulf war. He has quietly but relentlessly pushed the government to build up stockpiles of smallpox vaccine and to prepare in other ways for epidemics too horrible to contemplate. Before the Iraq war, he warned that Saddam possessed an arsenal of WMD and was a threat to work with terrorists to attack the United States. According to an article in The Washington Post, career intelligence analysts felt pressured by Libby to reach the same conclusion. "Horses--t," says CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. Libby's colleagues say that he never browbeats or bullies and that his style is teasing and fun. But the former highly paid lawyer (whose clients included NBC and fugitive financier Marc Rich) knows how to lead a witness. In some subtle way, he may have led the CIA analysts to back conclusions that were, in Dean Acheson's cold-war phrase, "clearer than the truth." One senior administration official says: "You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't. Before 9-11, the criticism was that we failed to connect the dots. Now the criticism is that we did connect the dots."

Libby is not a conniver. He believes he is doing the right thing. Intensely patriotic, the son of a self-made Miami Beach businessman who sent him to Andover and Yale, Libby appears to follow the model of an earlier generation of patricians with a well-developed sense of public service. His office, once occupied by assistant secretaries of the Navy Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, is decorated with portraits of the two Roosevelts and, behind the desk, a stern portrait of Winston Churchill. Libby has a dramatic sense of history. It is easy to imagine him in Churchill's inner circle in the 1930s, warning that the Nazis were building for war while England slept. When the news of the 9-11 attacks arrived, Libby once told a NEWSWEEK reporter, his portrait of Churchill suddenly twisted on the wall. Libby's balcony door was open at the time. Must have been the breeze, said Libby, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.