Leader Blues

Friday, March 09, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Making excuses for Libby

What a difference eight years make. A special prosecutor pursued President Clinton relentlessly through the ‘90s to see whether he had committed a crime in a 1978 private land transaction in Marion County, Ark. Finding nothing amiss, he investigated the president’s sex life and got him impeached for not being honest about his dalliance with an intern.

The right-wing commentators, the Emmett Tyrrells and Bob Novaks, said that it made no difference that there was no underlying crime behind the long Clinton investigation because lying under oath under any circumstances was grave enough to merit impeachment. That was December 1998.

I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, lied under oath and tried to obstruct an investigation of the unlawful exposure of a covert agent, and this week a jury convicted him. But the people who had cheered Clinton’s impeachment for lying about sex argued that Libby’s conviction was a perversion of justice. Since no one was charged with the crime of leaking the identity of the agent, Valerie Wilson, prosecuting Libby for his little lies was simple political persecution they cry.

Novak, whose column based on a confidential leak outed Mrs. Wilson, was saying this week that clearly no crime had been committed in identifying Wilson.

He said the federal Identities Protection Act of 1982 made it illegal to expose secret “intelligence activities overseas” and that Wilson was based in the United States so there was nothing wrong with outing her and, presumably, not much wrong with lying about it.

But the law makes no mention of overseas activities. It says it is unlawful to “disclose any information” that identifies any covert agent of the United States. Period. Wilson was a secret CIA operative working in Middle East intelligence.

Tyrrell and others used the same defense, many calling on President Bush to pardon Scooter immediately. Tyrrell repeated the same false stories that he has peddled about Clinton for years and added some to the Libby case. He said Wilson’s husband, who had been sent by the CIA to Niger to check on a rumor that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium, had lied by saying that he went on Vice President Cheney’s request. Wilson never said that.

Let there be no mistake. Leaking Valerie Wilson’s identity was no casual matter, and as Libby’s trial demonstrated it was not undertaken casually. Vice President Cheney wanted her identity known to punish Mrs. Wilson and her husband for the husband’s criticism of the administration’s handling of intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Libby was a willing agent.

Wilson’s criticism undermined the administration’s justification for invading Iraq. Libby’s lies and obstructions were trivial compared only with the gravity of what lay behind them: a cover-up of perhaps the most grievous mistake in American foreign-policy history. His lies did not hinge, as did President Clinton’s, on whether one considered oral sex to be real sex.