WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney's former aide, Lewis Libby, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges in the CIA leak probe, and his lawyer promised to fight it out in a public trial that could put a spotlight on how the White House made its case for the Iraq war.
"With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty," Libby told federal Judge Reggie Walton during his 10-minute arraignment.
Walton, who did not schedule a trial date, set Libby's next court appearance for Feb. 3. But lawyers warned that the case could get bogged down for months in a fight over classified documents underpinning the criminal charges.
Cheney and top officials could be summoned to testify at an eventual trial.
Libby, 55, resigned as Cheney's chief of staff on Friday after he was indicted on five counts of obstructing justice, perjury and lying in the two-year investigation into the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. If convicted, Libby faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Plame's identity was leaked to the media in July 2003 after her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to justify the war in Iraq.
Libby's newly hired defense lawyer, Theodore Wells, promised a vigorous court battle.
"He (Libby) 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," Wells said after Libby was fingerprinted and had his picture taken by marshals at the federal courthouse.
Before any trial, Libby could still try to cut a deal with special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to plead guilty to lesser charges and cooperate in the investigation, though Wells sought to play down that possibility.
President George W. Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was not indicted on Friday along with Libby. But lawyers involved in the case said Rove remained under investigation and may still be charged in the case. Fitzgerald is expected to inform Rove of his decision in the coming weeks.
Libby's indictment was a damaging blow to a White House already reeling from the mounting U.S. death toll in the Iraq war, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and the withdrawal of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers under fire from Bush's conservative power base.
In a letter to Cheney, Senate Democratic leaders accused him of replacing Libby with "two staffers who have themselves been connected with the Plame affair."
Bush is also under pressure from Democrats and some Republicans to shake up his senior staff. Rove's future role at the White House is unclear.
Before the arraignment, Libby beefed up his defense team, bringing in Wells, who is well known for his trial work and for defending former Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy and financier Michael Milken. He also hired white collar criminal defense lawyer William Jeffress, who represented another former Cheney aide, Mary Matalin, in the leak case.
Fitzgerald's investigation has shown that both Rove and Libby spoke to reporters about Wilson's wife despite initial denials by the White House.
As part of his defense strategy, Libby was expected to argue that any incorrect information he provided to federal investigators or the grand jury resulted from lapses in memory, according to attorneys involved in his case.
Libby walked into the courthouse near the U.S. Capitol using crutches because of a foot injury. His wife whispered in his ear and gave him a light pat on the bottom before Libby took his chair and the judge started the hearing.
Fitzgerald estimated that it would take his team of prosecutors about two weeks to present its case at trial.
Before any trial, Jeffress told the judge, there "may be protracted litigation" about classified information and First Amendment issues. He did not elaborate.
After the hearing, Jeffress declined to say how long a trial might take. "It's too early to say," he told reporters. "I'm not worried about anything at this point."
Wells added, with a touch of irony in his voice, "Two week trial? OK."
Libby waived his right to a speedy trial, and Wells called it a "complex case." He said the earliest the defense team would get clearance for classified material will be in 60 days, and then they will start to go through a "significant volume of documents."
The judge said he wanted the case resolved as expeditiously as possible.
As Libby walked out of the courthouse and was swarmed by cameras, one onlooker shouted "Guilty, Guilty, Guilty."