The conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to the FBI confirms the suspicions that millions of Americans have had for years about the lawlessness of this administration.
And the focus of the Libby trial on a particular aspect of that lawlessness -- the determination of the administration to punish critics of the manipulation of intelligence to make the "case" for invading and occupying Iraq – means that these convictions go to the heart of the current debates about how to end that war and about how to hold those responsible for it to account.
Make no mistake about what has happened: An essential member of the Bush-Cheney administration has been convicted of attempting to undermine a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into scheming by the vice president and others to punish former Ambassador Joe Wilson for revealing that statements made before the start of the war by the president and others were in conflict with intelligence that had been provided to the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, got it right when he said: "It's about time someone in the Bush Administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics."
Reid got it right, as well, when he said, "(The Libby) trial revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney's role in this sordid affair. Now President Bush must pledge not to pardon Libby for his criminal conduct."
But Reid and other Congressional leaders have their own responsibilities now.
The Libby trial revealed stunning details about Cheney's direct and aggressive involvement to attack Wilson. In the course of the trial, it was revealed by Catherine J. Martin, who served as the vice president's top press aide in 2003, that Cheney dictated detailed "talking points" for Libby, and others on how they could impugn Wilson's credibility
The vice president ordered press aides to closely track press coverage of Wilson and ordered Libby to begin making behind-the-scenes contacts with reporters covering the story. So engaged with the "get-Wilson" initiative was Cheney that, while he and Libby were traveling on Air Force Two, the vice president personally prepared materials to be slipped to a Time magazine reporter who was on the story.
That level of involvement by the vice president in an effort to discredit a former ambassador of the United States who was participating legally and appropriately in a national debate about how the war in Iraq began begs the question: Will Cheney be held to account?
"This case doesn't end with Mr. Libby's conviction," says Congressman Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, the House's most consistent and aggressive critic of Cheney. "Testimony in the Libby trial made it even more clear that Vice President Cheney played a major role in the outing of Mrs. Wilson's identity. It is time to remove the cloud hanging over Vice President Cheney and the White House that Special Counsel (Patrick) Fitzgerald so aptly described in his closing remarks and expose all of the lies that led to the outing of Mrs. Wilson's identity."
Hinchey says that, "The question which has always needed to be addressed is why Mrs. Wilson's CIA position was revealed to the press. The answer is that the administration was attempting to undermine and weaken the credibility of her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, who publicly disclosed his findings that Iraq never sought uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapon. Ambassador Wilson publicly proved that the administration's case for war -- that Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program -- was false. He demonstrated that multiple senior administration officials, including President Bush himself, deliberately made false and misleading statements to win congressional approval and public support for an invasion of Iraq."
Hinchey's right. Fitzgerald, who says there is a cloud hanging over the office of the vice president, should pursue the matter of Cheney's wrongdoing. But so, too, should Congress, where House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Henry Waxman, D-California, is reportedly talking with House leaders about dusting off his 2005 proposal that issues related to the scandal should be the subject of congressional hearings. "It's ridiculous that Congress should stay out of all of this and not hold hearings," Waxman said at the time.
It is even more ridiculous to think that, with Libby now convicted, and with so much new evidence of Cheney's inappropriate activity now in the public domain, the House and Senate would fail to open hearings.
At issue is the most fundamental of all questions in a republic: Can a member of the executive branch of the federal government, perhaps the dominant member, deliberately deceive the legislative branch, then set out to use to punish Americans who expose those lies, and get away with it?
That is not just a legal question for prosecutor Fitzgerald, it is a Constitutional question for Congress.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"