On the night he became president of the United States under the most unprecedented of circumstances, Gerald Ford stood in the East Room of what was officially his new home and nailed the essence of governance in a single sentence: “I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together …” By that standard, the government of President Bush and Vice President Cheney came unglued long ago.
Bush’s commutation on Monday of former vice-presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s 30-month prison sentence — a jail term sought by a Republican-appointed special prosecutor, decreed by a Republican-appointed judge, upheld by a Republican-appointed appellate court — for the felonies of perjury and obstruction of justice should have surprised no one in the know. It fell nicely within the pattern that has ruled the Bush-Cheney administration.
Ever since the days of their pre-inaugural transition, secrecy has reigned. Truth has been viewed as fungible, malleable, expendable. It has been that way on all manner of matters — from the intelligence underlying the sending of young men and women into harm’s way and then keeps them there when the mission has been changed, or the justification for the jettisoning of principles of treatment of those captured in war, or merely those traditional corruptions involving the influence of special interests in the making of the policies that govern and even shape our lives.
The compound cover-ups continue, unabated because they are oft-abetted — and all of Washington knows it, from the ever-outraged liberals to often-angered centrists to the occasionally irked conservatives.
What has slipped their collective minds, however is that in a very real sense, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, special counsel in the Libby case, has made himself part of the Bush-Cheney cover-up. Fitzgerald has departed from the tradition established by previous special counsels and has opted not to report to the public on the conclusions his investigation established concerning the scandal he was appointed to investigate.
Specifically, Fitzgerald has chosen not to outline the conclusions of his excruciatingly long and meticulous investigation that would shed light at last on just who did what in the Bush-Cheney administration’s leaking to journalists the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. This is a matter of significant public importance because the case involves far more than Libby’s actions. It involves actions taken by the man Libby so loyally served for years and was clearly trying to shield by making false statements to federal investigators — Cheney. The case also involves direct actions taken by the president’s closest political strategist and operative, White House assistant Karl Rove.
Cheney, Rove and, no doubt, the president were displeased by public statements by Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, that Bush had been incorrect in his State of the Union assertion that Iraq sought uranium in Niger. The CIA had sent Wilson to look into the statement. Cheney, Rove and others understandably wanted to discredit Wilson’s competence — which is no crime, just politics.
It is a federal crime to divulge the identity of a covert CIA agent — but only if the leaker knows that individual actually is a covert agent, not just a CIA employee. That’s difficult to prove in court. So Fitzgerald wound up charging no one with divulging a covert agent’s identity. But Libby obstructed justice by making false statements to federal investigators and the grand jury, especially about how he learned that Plame worked for the CIA. Libby was told that by Cheney. But Libby had claimed to investigators he learned it from NBC journalist Tim Russert, who is rarely mistaken for the veep.
Meanwhile, the president was asserting he wanted his staff to tell the truth and would fire any leaker. His press secretary assured America that it was ridiculous to think that Rove or Libby told journalists of Plame’s identity. But we now know they had. Then again, lying to journalists or ordinary Americans is not obstruction of justice. Just obstruction of democracy.
That is why Bush desperately hopes Fitzgerald will keep the lid on what he knows about the false statements and undemocratic acts made in his name. No wonder his Monday statement carefully praised Fitzgerald as “a highly qualified, professional prosecutor who carried out his responsibilities as charged” — even as the president was erasing the core result of Fitzgerald’s work.
A special counsel’s public duty goes beyond prosecuting criminals. It is a public trust that must never withhold vital truths from the citizens he serves.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)