Vice President Dick Cheney may have avoided serious law enforcement scrutiny in regard to his office's efforts to discredit and harm the man who exposed the administration's manipulation of pre-war intelligence.
But Congress has the power to examine wrongdoing by members of the executive branch, and it is going to start using that power.
The House Oversight and Government Affairs will open hearings – perhaps as early as March 16 -- on issues raised by the trial of Cheney's former chief-of-staff, I. "Scooter" Libby, who this week was convicted of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to the FBI in an investigation into the leaking of the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative who is married to former Ambassador Joe Wilson.
The revelation by Wilson that members of the Bush-Cheney administration should have known statements the president and vice president were making to be false enraged Cheney, who personally dictated talking points designed to discredit Wilson.
Congressman Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who chairs the powerful oversight committee, announced Thursday afternoon that his committee will investigate the scandal. Waxman, who is widely regarded as the House's most diligent scrutinizer of governmental wrongdoing, says he may open the hearings with testimony from Valerie Plame.
Waxman has written to Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in the Libby case, expressing concern that core questions about how the White House handled the whole affair remain unresolved.
Waxman has asked Fitzgerald to meet with him to discuss possible testimony before the oversight committee by the prosecutor.
"The trial proceedings raise questions about whether senior White House officials, including the Vice President and Senior Advisor to the President Karl Rove, complied with the requirements governing the handling of classified information," Waxman explained in his letter to Fitzgerald. "They also raise questions about whether the White House took appropriate remedial action following the leak and whether the existing requirements are sufficient to protect against future leaks. Your perspective on these matters is important."
How aggressive will the Waxman-led hearings be?
Would Waxman consider asking Cheney to testify? If Cheney refuses, might a congressional subpoena be in order?
A hint may be found in a letter, sent in November, 2005, by Waxman, New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey and Michigan Democrat John Conyers to the vice president. The trio requested that Cheney testify before the House regarding his role in the CIA leak case.
The letter declared that:
It is extremely important with regard to the maintenance of the integrity of our democratic republic that the full and complete truth of this matter be made available to the American people. Unfortunately, doubts and questions will continue to grow until the nation learns the complete story behind the leak of Valerie Wilson's identity. There are many wide-ranging questions about your involvement with the disclosure of Valerie Wilson's identity to which the American people deserve answers, including:
1.) Why were you and other officials in your office investigating Valerie Wilson's employment with the CIA?
2.) Did you authorize Mr. Libby to disclose Valerie Wilson's identity to the news media? Were you aware that he was doing so?
3.) At the time of the leak, Valerie Wilson's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had been publicly questioning the Administration's claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger, which had been used as a primary justification for war. At the time of the leak, did you believe the claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger was true? When did you first learn that the uranium claims were untrue? Was the disclosure of Valerie Wilson's identity an attempt to discredit her husband and what he had been saying about the uranium claims being false?
4.) When you learned that the leak had occurred, did you investigate whether any members your staff were responsible for this act? If so, when did you do so and what were your findings?
5.) Do you think that those involved with the leak should be allowed to maintain their security clearances?
The Libby trial has highlighted the need to answer these questions.
Waxman has the authority to pursue those answers.
Perhaps most significantly, he understands that it is, indeed, "important with regard to the maintenance of the integrity of our democratic republic that the full and complete truth of this matter be made available to the American people."
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.'"