When a Washington jury hears testimony in mid-January in the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the narrow question at hand will be whether Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff purposely lied to FBI agents and grand jurors investigating the leak that exposed Valerie (Plame) Wilson as a CIA officer. But the trial is about more than Libby’s false statements. At issue is why he didn’t tell the truth. And that leads to the number-one transgression of the Bush Administration: how it sold a war on phony pretexts. This trial, which comes when nearly three-quarters of the public don’t approve of George Bush’s war in Iraq, is a sharp reminder that the White House presented a spurious case for war and then desperately tried to preserve a PR campaign at odds with reality.
Recall that the Plame leak occurred because the White House, in mid-2003, was trying to discredit a critic who had challenged its argument for war when its main justification for it–that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was developing a nuclear bomb–was being undermined by facts on the ground. Shortly after the invasion, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson began privately telling reporters that Bush’s prewar charge that Saddam Hussein had been seeking uranium in Africa was wrong. In 2002 the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger to check out this claim (based on poorly forged documents), and he had concluded that it was highly unlikely. When reporters started writing about Wilson’s mission without naming him, Libby and Cheney gathered information on him. They learned that his wife was an officer at the CIA division that had dispatched Wilson to Niger.
As news stories appeared with intelligence-community leaks suggesting that the White House had manipulated the prewar intelligence, Cheney, Libby and other Bush aides felt threatened. In an off-the-record conversation with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Libby dismissed Wilson’s trip to Niger and mentioned that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA (her employment at the agency was classified information). When Wilson publicly charged that the White House had “twisted” intelligence “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat,” the White House went into negative-campaign mode, hoping to undercut the first public critic who had inside information. Libby and Bush strategist Karl Rove told reporters about Wilson’s wife, as if his trip to Niger had merely been a nepotistic junket. Evidence developed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicates that Cheney was directly involved in the anti-Wilson activity.
During this frenzied period Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had learned about Wilson’s wife through a memo on Wilson his department had written for Libby, told right-wing columnist Robert Novak about her. After Rove confirmed her CIA employment for Novak (and after Libby had shared the same information with a Time reporter), Novak published the piece that outed Valerie Wilson. This prompted a question (first asked by me on the Nation website): Had Bush aides violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which prohibits federal officials from revealing information identifying an undercover intelligence officer?
Once the leak became a possible criminal matter, Libby had two strong motives for not telling the truth: to avoid prosecution under this law and to hide Cheney’s participation in an underhanded (if not illegal) campaign to damage a policy foe. In interviews with the FBI and appearances before a grand jury, Libby claimed that he had learned about Wilson’s wife only from talking to reporters, that he had simply passed along this scuttlebutt to other journalists and that he forgot he had received classified information about Wilson’s wife from Cheney and others in the government.
It was a thin tale. Now Libby’s lawyers contend he was so busy with important matters of state (such as helping run the Iraq War) that he innocently confused his recollections. And Libby’s defense team has signaled that it may call Cheney as a witness to bolster this claim. This would afford Fitzgerald the chance to question Cheney about his involvement in the anti-Wilson campaign.
Not far into his investigation, Fitzgerald concluded that he couldn’t bring a case under the poorly written Intelligence Identities Protection Act. But he spent two years investigating Rove and Libby for not coming clean about their actions (Rove barely escaped prosecution). This cover-up was important for the White House, which falsely insisted that Rove and Libby were not involved in the leak. The stonewalling protected those who had been trying to maintain the cover story for the war.
That cover story has long since been ripped apart. But Bush and Cheney have not yet been held accountable for peddling untruths to lead the nation to war. As Fitzgerald has said, the war is not on trial. But the integrity of the White House is. Libby will be judged on his own actions, but he’s a stand-in for the culprits higher up, whose war-building misrepresentations were beyond the reach of a federal prosecutor.