The one big news story of Tuesday, March 6, was the unanimous federal jury verdict finding former Cheney Chief of Staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby guilty of four of the five felonies for which he was indicted. Libby was convicted of two counts of perjury, one count of obstruction of justice and one false statement, all of which arise out of what the jury decided were just plain lies he told to the FBI and grand jury as it investigated the "outing" of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Maybe it was an "inside the beltway" thing - and no one cared.
The Associated Press account - Libby Found Guilty in CIA Leak Trial - says the whole thing "shook the top levels of the Bush administration." Well, the news kind of "focused new attention on the Bush administration's much-criticized handling of intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war."
Yes, the jury just did not buy the Libby defense - that hadn't lied but merely had a bad memory. And the verdict was a tad historic - Libby is now the highest-ranking White House official convicted in a government scandal since National Security Adviser John Poindexter in the Iran-Contra business - two decades ago. Poindexter, of course, got his pardon and now runs our government's renamed "Total Information Awareness" project - collecting everything on everyone. There is life after a felony conviction.
But there were key points -
Trial testimony made clear that President Bush secretly declassified a portion of the prewar intelligence estimate that Cheney quietly sent Libby to leak to Judith Miller of The New York Times in 2003 to rebut criticism by ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson. Bush, Cheney and Libby were the only three people in the government aware of the effort.
More top reporters were ordered into court - including Miller after 85 days of resistance in jail - to testify about their confidential sources among the nation's highest-ranking officials than in any other trial in recent memory.
And this -
Libby, not only Cheney's chief of staff but also an assistant to Bush, was expressionless as the verdict was announced on the 10th day of deliberations. In the front row, his wife, Harriet Grant, choked out a sob and her head sank.
Libby could face up to 25 years in prison when sentenced June 5, but federal sentencing guidelines will probably prescribe far less, perhaps one to three years. Defense attorneys said they would ask for a retrial and if that fails, appeal the conviction.
And there were the three key reactions to it all -
The president watched news of the verdict on television at the White House. Deputy press secretary Dana Perino said Bush respected the jury's verdict but "was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family."
In a written statement, Cheney called the verdict disappointing and said he was saddened for Libby and his family, too. "As I have said before, Scooter has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction through many years of public service."
Wilson, whose wife left the CIA after she was exposed, said, "Convicting him of perjury was like convicting Al Capone of tax evasion or Alger Hiss of perjury. It doesn't mean they were not guilty of other crimes."
Libby is free pending sentencing. His lawyers will ask that he remain so through any appeal. As for a presidential pardon for the chap - the prospects are not clear. Top Democrats called on Bush to pledge not to pardon Libby - the White House will not say what the president might do.
Glenn Greenwald offers some perspective in Lewis "Scooter" Libby is a Convicted Felon - "What had appeared for several years to be a powerful shield possessed by top Bush officials against being held accountable under the law looks much less powerful today. Dick Cheney's most trusted advisor is now a convicted felon."
There were few officials with greater influence or power during the first four years of the Bush administration than Libby, as Greenwald notes - Libby was not only the vice president's chief of staff, but also assistant to the president himself in national security matters.
But wait! Regarding Libby there's much more -
He has long been one of the most well-connected neoconservatives in the country. Along with Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush and Norman Podhoretz, Libby was one of the 25 signatories to the founding statement of Bill Kristol's empire-embracing Project for a New American Century in 1997. PNAC called for an invasion of Iraq long before the 9/11 attack was seized on as the "justification" for that invasion. When it comes to the political movement that has dominated the American government for the last six years, Scooter Libby was at its very crux, a close intimate of America's most powerful political officials.
So he wasn't just a flunky.
And here's the deal -
If Libby can be convicted of multiple felonies, then any Bush official who has committed crimes can be as well. Not only are Bush officials subject to the rule of law (their radical theories of executive power to the contrary notwithstanding), they are also vulnerable to legal consequences (the defeatist beliefs of some Bush critics notwithstanding). Having the nation watch this powerful Bush official be declared a criminal -- despite having been defended by the best legal team money can buy - resoundingly reaffirms the principle that our highest political officials can and must be held accountable when they break the law.
… The Bush administration has no good options for how to respond to this conviction politically. The seriousness of the charges is manifest. Libby was accused, and now found guilty of, obstructing justice in connection with an FBI investigation into the disclosure of a covert CIA operative. Unlike, say, defenders of Bill Clinton during his perjury impeachment trial in the Senate, the administration cannot plausibly make the claim - though its proxies in the conservative blogosphere continue to do so - that the underlying investigation that Libby obstructed was not serious. And the endless parade of emphatic speeches delivered by top Republicans about the Seriousness of Perjury during the Clinton impeachment proceedings somewhat hamstrings the ability of Republicans to be dismissive of the importance of these crimes.
Nor are potential Libby defenders able to depict Fitzgerald as some sort of partisan, out-of-control Ken Starr figure. Fitzgerald was appointed as special counsel by the Bush Justice Department, and has no Starr-like history of partisan affiliations one way or the other. By refusing to indict Karl Rove and other Bush officials who were almost certainly indictable - a decision that disappointed most Bush critics following this case - Fitzgerald has revealed himself to be a model of prosecutorial restraint. He is also now a vindicated prosecutor.
While Libby associates will undoubtedly unleash all sorts of smears on Fitzgerald in order to discredit the conviction, there are simply no effective weapons against what ought to be the serious political damage resulting from this trial.
This is sort of a checkmate, or a check. Perhaps chess isn't the right metaphor.
And there's more than one game anyway -
Last August, a federal district judge, Anna Diggs Taylor, ruled that President Bush's warrantless eavesdropping program violated not only the Constitution but also FISA, a criminal statute making it a federal felony to eavesdrop on Americans without judicial warrants and imposing punishments of five years' imprisonment for each offense and fines up to $10,000.
Also last fall, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hamden case rejected the Bush administration's principal defense for its violations of the Geneva Conventions not only with regard to military commissions, but also generally. By holding that Common Article 3 of the Conventions applies to all detainees, and by emphasizing that a failure to treat detainees in compliance with Common Article 3 constitutes "war crimes," the Supreme Court effectively found that Bush officials have authorized and engaged in what clearly could be construed to be felony violations of the War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. sec. 2241), which makes it a federal crime to violate war treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. Though the administration succeeded in inducing the Republican-led Congress to enact the Military Commissions Act as a shield against retroactive criminal liability, the constitutionality of that law, and the efficacy of the criminal shield provisions, are far from certain.
The administration is having a hard time, as a previous administration did -
Richard Nixon was reelected in 1972 with the largest landslide in American history, but he spent the next two years watching as his closest aides were hauled off to criminal proceedings and convicted, and in 1974, Nixon himself was forced from office, dependent upon Gerald Ford's pardon in order to avoid being imprisoned himself.
This administration has concocted all sorts of radical theories to justify its transgressions and outright violations of the law. It began that behavior at a time when it appeared that it was invulnerable and too politically powerful to be held accountable. After today's conviction of one of its own, it most assuredly sees things differently.
So this may be a turning point.
Andy McCarthy at the National Review argues anyone can see there was no real crime here - Cheney and Libby and the rest sincerely believed Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons, or trying to, and "getting" Wilson and his wife was just another way of protecting the nation. So you can't fault their motives, only their methods.
Andrew Sullivan, who once supported the war, isn't buying that at all -
If I still believed that Cheney sincerely believed that there were dangerous WMDs in Iraq before the war, I might agree. But I have enough doubt on that score now to hope this matter is pursued further. Perhaps the best way is by Congressional hearings on the use or abuse of pre-war WMD intelligence. Cheney should testify. He can't act like a monarch any more under these circumstances. And a sit-down with a poodle like Hume or Wallace won't wash. I was going to suggest an interview with Russert, but that might get a little ridiculous.
Yes, Russert sank Libby. Tim said the conversation where he told Libby about Wilson's wife - the first time, Libby said, he'd ever heard of her - was about something else entirely. All the evidence pointed to Libby flat-out lying about what Russert was supposed to have said. Libby is unlikely to appear on Russert's Meet the Press show now.
Sullivan then goes on and generalizes -
Something is rotten in the heart of Washington; and it lies in the vice-president's office. The salience of this case is obvious. What it is really about - what it has always been about - is whether this administration deliberately misled the American people about WMD intelligence before the war. The risks Cheney took to attack Wilson, the insane over-reaction that otherwise very smart men in this administration engaged in to rebut a relatively trivial issue: all this strongly implies the fact they were terrified that the full details of their pre-war WMD knowledge would come out. Fitzgerald could smell this. He was right to pursue it, and to prove that a brilliant, intelligent, sane man like Libby would risk jail to protect his bosses. What was he really trying to hide? We now need a Congressional investigation to find out more, to subpoena Cheney and, if he won't cooperate, consider impeaching him.
Impeach the vice president? Golly, that would be harsh.
But Kevin Drum adds to that -
Nobody else lied to the FBI and the grand jury. Only Libby. And that makes it pretty obvious that he was trying to hide the one thing he knew that no one else did: the fact that he learned Valerie Plame Wilson's identity from Dick Cheney.
For some reason, in May 2003 Cheney went ballistic over a couple of anonymous statements Joe Wilson made to Nick Kristof and Walter Pincus, statements that weren't especially damaging to Cheney and could have been challenged pretty easily. It's hard to say why (my longtime guess is here), but the end result was that Cheney ferreted out Plame's identity, passed it along to Libby, and told him to put a full-court press on Wilson. Libby thought it was worth lying about this because it threatened to provide a clue to just how involved Cheney had been in spinning the prewar intelligence on Iraqi nukes. That was the one thing serious enough to make them wildly overreact to a couple of otherwise toothless allegations.
Libby deserves his convictions. The only unfair thing about the whole trial is that his boss, the guy who was behind the whole thing, wasn't in the dock with him.
Well, that will never happen.
Patrick Fitzgerald, speaking to the jury in the Libby case, did say, "There is a cloud over what the vice president did. That's not something we put there. That cloud is not something you can pretend is not there."
And Sullivan says that really does matter -
We're beginning to find out what Cheney knew about WMD intelligence and what he did about it. There is no graver issue than sending a country to war. If it emerges that he knew there were strong doubts about WMD intelligence and over-ruled them, he must be held accountable. Certainly his actions in the Libby case look the actions of a man with a great deal to hide. Why else risk so much?
That is a logical question, one that leads to another - Should Cheney Resign?
The reasoning -
His health is rough; he has been the most disastrous vice-president in history; he has lost two wars; he has lost every ally; he is despised in much of the country; he is now going to be the center of all the questions that the Libby guilty verdict raises. Why did he get so exercised about a two-bit critic during a critical time in the Iraq war? Why would he risk losing his most trusted aide by coordinating a media sting on a minor political opponent? Why would he risk committing a crime to pursue Wilson unless he had something very serious to hide? He will now have to answer many questions - either before the press or before the Senate.
Mark Daniels asks similar questions -
Libby was, by all accounts, Dick Cheney's alter ego. There will thus be many questions asked about any association the Vice President may have had with Libby's crimes. A version of Howard Baker's questions during the Watergate hearings, posed about Nixon, will be foremost among them:
The Bush Administration, trying to assert its leadership on Iraq, the war on terrorists, and a number of domestic initiatives, may decide that they can't afford a drawn-out defense of the Vice President. Cheney, a loyal soldier, may also be able to use his new health issues as a convenient (and legitimate) reason for stepping down. His resignation would give Bush Administration critics one less thing to complain about. And the right replacement nominated by Mr. Bush could earn him points and goodwill.
Or, alternatively, the president could pardon Libby right now, as that might be easier, except for what Sullivan notes is quite obvious -
I can see why they feel this way. But purely from a political standpoint, such a pardon would surely ignite a massive protest, turn this story into a much bigger one, and make many more Americans curious about why their own vice-president was more interested in tackling a domestic critic in the summer of 2003 than fighting the Iraq insurgency. The risk in not pardoning Libby, of course, is that he may begin to talk. Uh-oh. The aspens could be turning. And their roots are all connected.
That of course is an allusion to the note Libby sent the New York Times' Judy Miller while she was in jail, covering for him - "You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now ... Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them."
This is all very odd.
And the widely-read Digby says it's somehow stimulating -
The Libby verdict is very exciting - Howard Dean and other Dems are all calling on the president to promise not to pardon Scooter. The right is spinning like tops. Fox news commentators are lamely saying that the verdicts don't make sense because they acquitted Libby on one count. Bob Novak said the Bush administration had no "guts" because they agreed to allow an "unsupervised" special prosecutor to investigate them when they could have just shut down the investigation from the beginning. (G. Gordon Liddy couldn't have said it better.) It's a bad day for the Republicans.
This may indeed be Nixon territory. It may be beyond Nixon territory, beyond the edge of the map, where the dragons are.
Elsewhere, at the National Review's "The Corner," conservative Mark Levin declares himself "extremely distressed" - "I think the Cooper counts were flimsy. I think the whole case was flimsy. I think the witnesses were flimsy. I think the judge's rulings, in certain respects, were flimsy. I think Fitzgerald's closing argument was flimsy. … This case doesn't stand for the truth when jurors are confused about instructions and basic concepts like 'reasonable doubt' days and hours before handing down their verdict, after 9-10 days of deliberation."
Conservative James Joyner at "Outside the Beltway" is ticked off at an Editor and Publisher article that just reports facts - saying that the jurors saw Libby as a "fall guy." He says no one should says that - "Libby has been convicted of the crime of lying about his involvement in something that wasn't a crime and that he wasn't involved with. Had there been something with which to charge Rove or some other more prominent official, there's no doubt Fitzgerald would have charged them."
It's not that bad. It's not that bad. It's not that bad.
"Political junkie" Mark Daniels at "Better Living" calls for what he sees as an out - Cheney might be better off resigning - "The Bush Administration, trying to assert its leadership on Iraq, the war on terrorists, and a number of domestic initiatives, may decide that they can't afford a drawn-out defense of the Vice President. … His resignation would give Bush Administration critics one less thing to complain about. And the right replacement nominated by Mr. Bush could earn him points and goodwill."
Yeah, that might work - unless he nominates Rush Limbaugh or James Dobson, or Ann Coulter. He's pissed. He might do anything.
Over at "Balloon Juice" the thought is that Libby can expect a pardon - "The president has no personal stake in the next election and he could give a rat's ass about public opinion. As for what would make him want to do it, I suspect that it means something that team Libby threatened to compel Cheney to testify and then reneged at the last minute."
Who knows what will happen? No one knows. The prediction from here, just above Sunset, is that Cheney will resign for health reasons by the middle of March. Last week's deep-vein thrombosis - Cheney Undergoes Treatment for Blood Clot Deep in Left Leg - provides the necessary staging. The Libby verdict provides the motivation to make the change. McCain or Rice, or Joe Lieberman, becomes the next vice president - problem solved. Libby who?
Otherwise, Rush Limbaugh has a serious warning - liberals better be careful because they are "poking the bear" - we liberals ("progressives," for the timid) are getting him and his friends all upset - and we'll be really sorry we ever even thought about all this stuff being bad for the administration.
You can listen to that here -
This is the best news for Republicans and conservatives there could be. All conservatives will now circle the wagons, after going dormant last fall for whatever reason. The more the Democrats and liberals gloat, the better news it is for us. They are POKING THE BEAR! They'll be SORRY!
Be afraid. Be very afraid - or not.
John Dickerson adds a bit more -
Afterward Denis Collins, the former Washington Post reporter on the jury, said the deliberating jurors often wondered about the role of the White House in general and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove in particular. Collins said that "a number of times" the jury asked themselves, "What is he doing here? Where is Rove and all these other guys? ... I'm not saying we didn't think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of. It seemed like he was … the fall guy." Collins said the jury believed that Vice President Cheney did "task [Libby] to talk to reporters." He said, "Some jurors said at one point, 'We wish we weren't judging Libby. ... This sucks.' "
The jury has convicted Libby, but Collins has convicted the administration. Libby was being a good soldier, lying and obstructing justice to protect himself, the vice president, and the administration from political embarrassment or legal jeopardy.
Anyone can see that -
Libby could be sentenced to a maximum of about 30 years in prison and fined up to $1.25 million, though sentencing guidelines could reduce his jail time to one to three years. Libby is the highest-ranking White House official to be convicted of a felony since the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s. Will he get a pardon, as Casper Weinberger did in that case? Who knows? If he gets a pardon, it will suggest the president is rewarding him for taking a fall for the White House and the vice president. If he doesn't, it will suggest that President Bush, who said he was sad for the Libby family, isn't sad enough.
Now the fun begins.
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Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time
All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik