When he announced the indictment of Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald included a homily on the importance of truth. And in truth it sounded a bit quaint, like someone trying to recite the Sermon on the Mount on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. But of course Fitzgerald was right. When lying becomes the accepted currency, you haven’t got the rule of law but a criminal conspiracy.

All governments lie, but Ronald Reagan and his crew raised the bar. From about 1978 on, when the drive to put Reagan in the White House gathered speed, lying was the standard mode for Reagan, his handlers and a press quite happy to retail all the bilge, from the Soviet Union’s supposed military superiority to the millionaire welfare queens on Chicago’s South Side. The press went along with it. Year after year, on the campaign trail and then in the White House, the press corps reported Reagan’s news conferences without remarking that the Commander in Chief dwelt mostly in a twilit world of comic-book fables and old movie clips.

Lying about Reagan’s frail grip on reality was only part of the journalistic surrender. For those who see Judith Miller’s complicity in the lying sprees of the neocons as a signal of the decline of the New York Times from some previous plateau of objectivity and competence, I suggest a review of its sometime defense correspondent Richard Burt in the late Carter years, as Al Haig’s agent in place. Burt relayed truckloads of threat-inflating nonsense about the military balance in the cold war, particularly in the European theater, most of it on a level of fantasy matching the lies Miller got from Chalabi’s disinformers and trundled into print. When the Reaganites seized power in 1981, Burt promptly threw down his press badge and went to work in the State Department as Director of Politico-Military Affairs, a post previously held by another former Times man, Leslie Gelb, no garden rose but not a two-timer on the order of Burt.

Many of the associates of Libby and of his boss, now threatened by Fitzgerald, are veterans of that Reagan culture and hardened survivors of the crisis that ultimately threatened several of them with legal sanction and lengthy terms in prison. That crisis was the Iran/contra scandal, which burst upon the nation October 6, 1986–the day Eugene Hasenfus successfully parachuted from a CIA-piloted plane illegally shuttling arms to the contras.

Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a federal judge from Oklahoma City, began his investigation. In the probe that stretched through the rest of Reagan-time and the entire presidency of G.H.W. Bush, Walsh made his most effective headway by bringing charges for lying to Congress. This is how he nailed Caspar Weinberger, Elliott Abrams, Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, Alan Fiers, Clair George and Robert McFarlane. They all either pleaded guilty to what Libby was just indicted for–obstruction of justice and making false statements–or were convicted of same.

As Walsh plowed forward, those trying to protect Reagan and Bush included Stephen Hadley, a long-time Cheney sidekick now possibly in Fitzgerald’s line of fire as the current President’s National Security Adviser. In the Iran/contra era Hadley was counsel to the Special Review Board, known as the Tower Commission, established by Reagan to inquire into US arms sales to Iran, which headed off any unwelcome focus on Reagan’s or Bush’s complicity in the scandal. Meanwhile in the House, Representative Dick Cheney was the ranking Republican on a committee also investigating Iran/contra. He played a major role in stopping the probe from staining Bush or Reagan.

By fall 1992 Walsh was closing in on Bush for his role in contragate as Reagan’s Vice President. Days before the 1992 election Walsh re-indicted Weinberger, Reagan’s Defense Secretary, for lying to Congress. The trial was scheduled for January 1993. Walsh was expected to grill Weinberger about notes that implicated Bush. In the line of fire, too, was Colin Powell, who had been Weinberger’s assistant in the crucial year 1985. Walsh was also planning to question Bush about his failure to turn over a diary he’d kept in the mid-1980s. We could have seen a former President indicted for obstruction of justice and making false statements.

The press was mostly against Walsh. There were plenty of nasty articles about the cost and duration of his probe. Bush felt politically safe covering his own ass and that of his co-conspirators by issuing pardons, which he duly did, on Christmas Eve 1992. Off Walsh’s hook slipped Weinberger, Abrams, Clarridge, George, Fiers and McFarlane. Walsh said furiously that “the Iran/contra coverup, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.”

Will history come close to repeating itself? John Dean, White House counsel in Nixon time and knowledgeable about executive coverups, argues that Fitzgerald has Cheney in his sights and may be planning to charge him under the Espionage Act for revealing Plame’s name. Cheney’s survival depends on Libby keeping his mouth shut and taking the fall until Christmas Eve 2008, when Bush Jr. issues the necessary pardon or pardons.

Already in the wake of Libby’s indictment the air has been thick with talk of pardons, as though it’s now become a predictable ritual for incumbent Presidents to clear their subordinates of indictments or convictions for crimes committed during government service. Fitzgerald should say that anyone seriously urging pardons may risk indictment for conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Such pardons go hand in hand with the lying Fitzgerald denounced. If officials violating the law and lying about it know with certainty that they are going to escape legal sanction, then we no longer have a government. We have a sequence of criminal conspiracies. There have been scandalous pardons down the decades, but, as with lying, the Reagan years raised the bar. It should become a major political issue. Clinton didn’t dare spring neocon martyr Jonathan Pollard, given a life sentence in 1987 for spying for Israel. Pressure counts. Otherwise Fitzgerald will be wasting our time and the people’s money.