If George W. Bush really wants to strike a blow for justice he should pardon I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby now before his prosecution costs the taxpayers one dime more. It is really time to put an end to one of the most bizarre and disruptive politically inspired cases in recent memory.
Libby, as most Americans know, is the scapegoat for a non-crime that involved the public identification of a one-time undercover operative of the CIA, Valerie Plame, the wife of a small time diplomat, Joseph Wilson, who tweaked the White House over its claims that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear material in Africa. Plame, the White House claims, had a hand in the agency’s assigning her husband to investigate the claims, which were among those contentions used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Wilson found the claims unsubstantiated.
In the backlash over Wilson’s report, Plame’s identity as a CIA employee and her role in her husband’s selection was leaked to a national columnist, Robert Novak. The CIA demanded an investigation into whether the disclosure violated an obscure law prohibiting the outing of an undercover agent. A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was named by the Justice Department. Fitzgerald knew the source of the leak about Plame from the outset and determined rather rapidly the law had not been violated. The original source of Plame’s identification, by the way, was not Libby but Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage.
Now we are at the beginning of a senseless, albeit sensational trial brought about by Fitzgerald’s decision to find someone in the White House to bring to ground despite his own discovery that no crime had been committed. He settled on Libby, an aide to Vice President Richard Cheney, whom he charged with lying to the FBI and a grand jury and obstructing justice in the pursuit of answers he (Fitzgerald) already had. Libby said he first heard about Plame from a television personality, Tim Russert, but Russert denies the claim even as he concedes he talked to Libby.
Libby says his naming Russert as a source was a mistake brought about by a busy schedule that made it difficult to remember from whom he received what. Under normal circumstances, a prosecutor might be willing to accept this explanation, particularly since Libby is a lawyer of proven merit who would understand the consequences of deliberately lying to a grand jury. It is almost inconceivable that he would lie, particularly since he knew his statement could be checked easily. But Fitzgerald, known as the Boy Scout of federal prosecutors, was as relentless as if he had just read “Les Miserables” and was a fan of the French police inspector.
There is some indication that he really wanted to nail the president’s chief political advisor, Carl Rove, but settled finally on Libby, who is not known as an ideologue or even wildly political. His wife, who also is a lawyer, is in fact on the other side of most political issues, according to reports.
The effort to choose a jury this trial already has shown signs of being more a debate on Bush’s Iraq policy than an effort to find justice. Those facing empanelment have been asked their feelings about the president and several have been dismissed for voicing their animosity. Shades of things to come as the testimony of everyone from Cheney to a handful of prominent journalists and TV stars begins in earnest.
This is the inside the Beltway kind of circus this town loves. It is a travesty with some long-lasting consequences from which no one emerges unscathed — not the press, the prosecutor, the White House, the CIA, Wilson and Plame (the darlings of the Georgetown dining out set) and certainly not Libby, whose reputation as a tough, quiet but decent person already has been severely maligned. There is no constitutional crisis in this — nothing of great national import took place. No harm was done by the disclosure that Plame, who hadn’t been undercover for years, worked for the CIA.
Severe damage, however, has been done to the First Amendment by an over zealous prosecutor who, among other things, insisted on jailing a reporter for not revealing her source for a story she never wrote, undercutting a policy and tradition that has been a bulwark of press freedom since the beginning of the nation. The result is a chilling impact on the role of the Fourth Estate as the watchdog of democracy.
So, Mr. President, it is time you exercised your own constitutional prerogatives and ended this nonsense immediately. Even if an impartial jury could be selected, which is highly doubtful in this venue, the trial is an injustice.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)