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.
Libby’s account, Fitzgerald charged, was a cover story designed to remove him and the vice president from a leak investigation that was targeting the White House. At the trial, Fitzgerald methodically presented a series of witnesses who testified that weeks before the leak they had told Libby that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA: Marc Grossman, who had been undersecretary of state for policy in 2003; Robert Grenier, a former top CIA official; and Cathie Martin, who had been Cheney’s communications director. Craig Schmall, Libby’s CIA briefer at the time, testified that Libby had discussed Valerie Wilson with him. Schmall also testified that after the leak occurred, while he was briefing both Cheney and Libby, they asked him what he thought about the leak scandal. Noting that some commentators had dismissed the leak as “no big deal,” Schmall explained that he considered it a “grave danger.” He explained to Libby and Cheney that foreign intelligence services could now investigate everyone who had come into contact with Valerie Wilson when she had served overseas. “Those people,” he said, “innocent or otherwise, could be harassed…tortured or killed
Fitzgerald also called Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary, as a witness. Fleischer, who had struck an immunity deal with Fitzgerald in return for his testimony, testified that on July 7, 2003–the day after Joseph Wilson published an op-ed piece accusing the White House of having twisted the prewar intelligence–Libby disclosed Valerie Wilson’s CIA link to him at lunch and said this information was “hush-hush.” The conversation Fleischer recalled, was “odd.” (Fleischer also testified that he had leaked information to two reporters about Valerie Wilson–although it was unclear whether he had done anything more than egg on these reporters to discover her CIA connection. Later in the trial, Washington Post reporter testified that Fleischer had disclosed Valerie Wilson’s CIA connection to him.)
Fitzgerald presented three journalists as witnesses who contradicted Libby. Judy Miller claimed Libby had told her about Wilson’s wife in three different confidential interviews, beginning with a meeting on June 23, 2003. Matt Cooper testified Libby had confirmed for him the leak about Valerie Wilson he had received from Karl Rove. Russert said there was no way he could have been Libby’s source for any information on Valerie Wilson because he knew nothing about her before reading about her in the Novak column.
It was a powerful case. All these witnesses–except Russert–said they had spoken to Libby about Wilson’s wife prior to the leak. Three said they had provided Libby information about her. (And Libby had conceded that Cheney had done so, too.) Libby, though, had told the FBI and the grand jury he had known nothing concrete about her at the time of the leak. And his explanation was convoluted: yes, Cheney had told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA; but he had forgotten that the vice president had done so; he then heard about her from Russert and believed this was the first time he was learning about her. This defense–I knew, I forgot, I learned it anew and was surprised–was implausible.
Ted Wells, a tall and charismatic attorney leading Libby’s defense, tried to convince the jury that these witnesses were unreliable (and all were similarly misremembering similar events that had not happened). He attempted to make the case seem bigger and deeper than it was. It’s a twisted, complicated and dark tale, he said during opening arguments, one of conspiracies, bureaucratic infighting, turf wars, backroom deals, terrorist plots (involving nuclear weapons and anthrax) against the United States, and assorted memory lapses, convenient and accidental. Libby merely had engaged in no-harm-intended forgetfulness about a few “snippets” of conversation, Wells insisted. Moreover, Libby had been “set up” as a “sacrificial lamb” in a White House melodrama starring Cheney, who supposedly was defending Libby from a White House effort designed to protect Rove at all costs. “The case is far more complex than what you heard,” Wells told the jurors. He suggested that he would bring Cheney to the stand–and Rove and Libby.
But Wells did none of that. He let Cheney off the hook. (Fitzgerald had prepared for a cross-examination that would last hours.) Rove, too, was not called–even though Libby had claimed he had told Rove about his call with Russert right after it happened. If that had been true, testimony from Rove presumably could have corroborated Libby’s version of the Russert phone call–and could have blown a big hole in Fitzgerald’s case. A sharp-eyed juror could have read Rove’s absence from the witness stand as a sign that Libby had lied. And Libby himself stayed mum during the trial. His lawyers decided it would not be useful to place Libby in the position of having to repeat the same rhetorical acrobatics he had performed during his grand jury appearances. The defense ended its presentation without submitting any evidence to support its dramatic contentions that Libby had been set up by the White House, the CIA, the State Department or NBC News.
The jurors did not appear to have much trouble cutting through all the clutter tossed up by Libby’s defense. They spent a week reviewing and organizing all the testimony and evidence (on 34 pages of poster-size paper) before assessing whether Fitzgerald had proved his case. They convicted Libby on the single obstruction of justice count, two perjury counts (regarding his testimony to the grand jury) and one false statement count (stemming from an FBI interview). The jury acquitted him on the weakest count in the indictment–a false statement count related to what he had told the FBI about his conversation with Matt Cooper.
Libby said nothing as he left the courtroom. He looked neither resigned nor surprised. Minutes later, he appeared with his lawyers in front of reporters and camera crews outside the courthouse. Wells declared his client was “totally innocent” and that they would continue to fight. He said he would file a motion for a new trial and that if that motion is denied, he will file an appeal. “Mr. Libby will be vindicated,” he proclaimed. Libby made no comment.
After Libby and his lawyers walked off, Fitzgerald strode toward the microphones. He noted he was “gratified” by the verdict and explained that he had had no choice but to pursue Libby once he suspected that Cheney’s former chief of staff had lied under oath. “It’s every prosecutor’s duty,” he asserted. He declined to say what the verdict and case said–if anything–about the White House and the vice president’s office. During the trial, he had declared that Libby’s lies had placed a “cloud” over the vice president. Was such a cloud still present? he was asked. Fitzgerald refused to answer the question, but he said that by lying to the grand jury and the FBI, “Mr. Libby had failed to remove that cloud….Sometimes when people tell the truth, clouds disappear. Sometimes they do not.”
Fitzgerald defended his decision to subpoena reporters–and to imprison Judy Miller for 85 days–stating that he had to question journalists in order to determine if Libby had lied to the investigators. But he cautioned that other prosecutors ought to be “very careful” when considering whether to chase after journalists as witnesses. He added that he did not expect to file any further charges. His investigation was done.
The trial was not a satisfying end to the leak case. Fitzgerald’s mission was not to discover the whole truth of the saga and reveal all to the public (as he pointed out when speaking to reporters today). He was on the hunt for a crime–and for criminals. He ultimately concluded he could not prosecute the leakers–Rove, Libby, and then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage–for having disclosed information regarding Valerie Wilson. (The law prohibiting government officials from intentionally revealing information about clandestine intelligence officials requires a prosecutor to prove the leaker knew the officer was undercover.) So his criminal investigation focused on whether Libby lied. (He also investigated Rove for having possibly lied to the grand jury but ultimately decided not to indict him.) Consequently, only information from his investigation related to the Libby cover-up became public. What else Fitzgerald uncovered remains a secret. And per the rules governing criminal cases, it will stay a secret, he told reporters.
After the verdict was delivered, only one juror, Denis Collins, a Washington Post reporter in the 1980s, spoke to the press. He noted that jurors more than once asked, Why was Libby here, not Rove, not someone else? “Where are these other guys?” he said. The jurors were convinced, he noted, that Libby was guilty as charged (on four of the counts). But the jurors also believed he had been ordered by Cheney to talk to reporters as part of the White House’s spin operation. In other words, some White House wrongdoers or conspirators (if not conspirators in the strict legal definition of the word) had gotten off. But there was nothing the jurors could do about this, he said: “It was not a question of who we could punish about going to Iraq.” What about the prospect of a presidential pardon? one reporter asked Collins. Will you feel cheated if Bush pardons him? No, Collins replied: “He’s been pilloried. We found him guilty.” (Conservatives have already started a campaign for a Libby pardon.)
Scooter Libby, once Cheney’s top aide and one of the chief architects of the Iraq war, is now a criminal. He is the first White House official convicted of a crime since the Iran-contra scandal that tarred the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush. He is also a symbol of an administration that has lost credibility. How Bush and Cheney misrepresented the case for war and their disingenuous and dishonest post-invasion assertions about the war are more serious matters than the lies of the leak case. But the leak affair represents how this White House has done business and how it has mugged the truth. Libby is not only a fall guy for Cheney; he’s a poster-child for the Bush administration. The guilty verdict applies only to Libby, but the guilt extends beyond.
DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.