Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Libby takes the fall

Yesterday was a hard day in one of the hardest times any president has had to face since Pearl Harbor. Only Bill Clinton’s impeachment may have been harder, for the president and for the beloved country. A federal jury convicted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, of four counts of obstruction of justice and of lying to the F.B.I. and a grand jury. Libby cut a sad and almost sympathetic figure at the end because he seemed nearly incidental in the coordinated scheme to stop the unraveling of the administration’s duplicity in making war on Iraq.

The blow fell on Scooter Libby, who could someday serve some time and pay a fine if Bush does not pardon him, but it fell symbolically on an administration that used him to cover up the most horrendous blunders in the nation’s history and then dumped him. Libby’s own criminal actions were transparent, but he made the case forcefully that he was the fall guy for the White House.

Libby’s conviction seemed a natural part of the cascade of dispiriting developments in the war, which now consumes the administration like solar fire. The streets of Baghdad are covered afresh daily with blood and sinew, and the toll of American lives climbs as the president’s new surge strategy nears a month in duration.

The worst blow of all was the torrent of news over the weekend about the government’s mistreatment of and disdain for its wounded fighters — that unending caravan of young men and women who went to war one person and returned home quite another, disabled, scarred and emotionally broken. Their government demanded so much and returned so little. Stories of the mistreatment at Army medical facilities and the administration’s concerted effort to slow and deny benefits to crippled soldiers who it argued were mentally retarded or malingerers had dribbled out for three years, but the Washington Post last week finally put it all together. It was bad because Bush and Cheney have used the troops to parry critics of their conduct of the war. Criticism is unpatriotic because it dispirits and undermines the troops, they said.

Bush and Cheney said this week that they grieved at the medical failures, and the president appointed still another independent commission to find out what went wrong and how to fix it. A study commission is supposed to get the story off the front page, but this one will be to no avail.

But poor Libby. Did he deserve his fate for lying to protect his superiors? Libby, of course, said he never intentionally deceived the investigators. He just forgot about those conversations with reporters and with his boss, the vice president, because he had bigger concerns.

The question most Americans surely must be asking is why no one was ever charged with the original crime, exposing a secret agent, which both the president and his father described as a crime about as grievous as you can commit. Libby and, it turned out, others in the administration leaked to reporters the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson, a Central Intelligence Agency operative, in violation of the law. Her husband, unbeknownst to the world, was Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat. The CIA had dispatched Wilson in 2002 to look into a rumor that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Africa so that he could make nuclear bombs. Cheney wanted the story buttressed. But Wilson returned and reported to the CIA that the rumor was “highly doubtful.”

The administration dismissed his conclusions and used the rumor anyway as a justification for invading Iraq in 2003. But Bush and Cheney didn’t describe the uranium story as a rumor but as a fact. When they continued to do that even after the military itself debunked the nuclear claims in the wake of the invasion, Wilson wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times revealing his investigation and conclusion.

Seeing both its deceptions and rationale for the war unraveling, the administration set about furiously in the summer of 2003 to stanch it. It sought to discredit Wilson by planting the story that his wife was a CIA agent and that she had been interested in arranging a junket for her hubby. When her outing by columnist Robert Novak on our editorial page forced the president to order an investigation, the administration, or at least the vice president, set out to thwart the investigation. Scooter was the willing instrument and he will pay the price.

At the trial, it seemed that everyone had been trying to get her identity into the media: Karl Rove, the president’s political adviser; Richard L. Armitage, a deputy secretary of state; even Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary who had stood in front of reporters in the summer of 2003 insisting that no one in the White House had leaked her name. Fleischer came clean to the special prosecutor in exchange for immunity.

Why did the special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, and the grand jury not charge anyone with identifying a secret agent? Fitzgerald never said, but it became clear nevertheless. The vice president, if not the president himself, directed the outing, but under national security law they may legally declassify any national security secret. It would be hard to pin a crime on someone who had the power to render it a legal act even if had not actually exercised it.

We excuse the president. He said early on that he would fire people who leaked the information if they worked for him. They did, but he didn’t. The evidence proved conclusively that Cheney was trying to get the word out to destroy Wilson’s credibility and punish his wife, but not Bush. He may have been once again simply out of the loop in his own administration.
That, after all, is the sadness for the country and its peril: a president so weakened by self-revelation of its incompetence and insecurity that it can hardly govern. It is a long time until January 2009, and until then the United States needs divine providence.