Several minutes after noon on Tuesday, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby sat in a crowded Washington court room and somberly watched as the forewoman of the jury in his obstruction of justice trial pronounced the verdict. “Guilty,” she said, regarding Count One. She moved on to the other counts and repeated that word three times. The jury had found Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff guilty on four out of five counts. Libby stared straight ahead. He showed no reaction.
Eleven Washingtonians had convicted a former senior Bush White House aide of lying. The case was narrow. It was not about who had leaked classified information outing Valerie Wilson as an undercover CIA officer; it was not about whether the Bush administration had manipulated the prewar intelligence to whip up public support for the invasion of Iraq; it was not about the war. Still, Libby had been on trial for having deliberately misled government investigators to protect himself–and perhaps the vice president–from a criminal inquiry that had come about because the White House had not been straight with the public about the war. In the face of criticism that the administration had hyped the prewar intelligence, the White House in June and July 2003 went on the offensive and mounted a campaign that included passing information to the media about a high-profile critic, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Cheney’s office conducted a push-back operation of its own. In this swirl of damage-control and finger-pointing, administration officials leaked Valerie Wilson’s CIA identity. And that leak beget the criminal investigation that caused Libby to lie.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald charged that Libby obstructed justice, committed perjury and made false statements when he told FBI agents and the grand jury investigating the leak that he had possessed no official knowledge of Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection in the days before the leak appeared in Robert Novak’s July 14, 2003 column. Libby acknowledged to the investigators that Cheney had told him weeks before the leak occurred that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. But Libby claimed that he completely forgot this and that when Meet the Press host Tim Russert told him days before the leak happened that all the reporters in town knew Wilson’s wife was CIA, he believed he was learning this information “anew” as gossip. He then, Libby maintained, passed along this scuttlebutt to two reporters–Judith Miller, then of The New York Times, and Matt Cooper, then of Time–only as unconfirmed rumor.
In Libby’s telling, he had not disclosed any official and classified information to journalists. (Valerie Wilson’s employment with the CIA was classified.) And a government official cannot be prosecuted for sharing chitchat he or she picked up from journalists. Such a story would take Libby (and any official who had passed him information on Valerie Wilson) out of the line of fire. But only if it were true.