Libby takes the fall

Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, has resigned following his indictments on five counts of lying in the Valerie Plame investigation. If convicted, we’ll add his name to the dishonor roll of politicians who just can’t seem to remember one simple, fundamental rule about survival inside the Beltway:

It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.

Is there anyone in this great land of ours unfamiliar with the lessons of Watergate? Many of us are old enough to remember Richard Nixon, sweating before the television cameras, declaring, “I am not a crook;” more recently, Bill Clinton’s disingenuous, “I did not have sex with that woman.”

All lies, of course, but it’s one thing to lie to the American people, another to lie to a federal grand jury.

Interestingly, so far there have been no allegations of any crime in the underlying cause of the investigation, the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity as a secret agent. Under some circumstances, it is illegal to disclose the name of a spy.

To recap: Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has spent the past two years leading grand jury inquiries into who leaked Palme’s secret identity to Robert Novak, a conservative columnist who disclosed that she was a secret agent married to former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson was in the news at the time for having dissed the Bush Administration in a New York Times article by challenging the neocons’ claims that Iraq was trying to produce weapons of mass destruction.

That assertion about Iraq’s WMD aspirations was made by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address when he said: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Sixteen words that turned out to be a lie — in a sense, the first in a chain of lies that led to Libby’s indictment on Friday.

Long before the president made his misleading speech, Wilson had traveled to Niger to investigate the allegation at the behest of the CIA. According to language in Libby’s indictment, Wilson “reported back to the CIA and the State Department … that the allegations were unequivocally wrong and based on forged documents.”

It was the president’s 16 untruthful words that got this ball rolling, that got Libby interested in Palme’s secret life as a spy, that got him chatting about that to reporters (including the Times’ Judy Miller who spent three months in jail protecting his identity), that got him before the grand jury, that caught him up in his own lies (if the indictments are to be believed) and that brought scandal to the doorways of the White House.

Libby faces five charges, none of them alleging he gave up Plame’s identity.. Instead, he faces two counts of giving false statements to investigators, two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice.

For this he could face decades in prison and more than $1 million in fines.

Naturally, people want to know if a crime was committed in the first place.. Fitzgerald, citing grand jury secrecy, was careful in addressing that issue in a press conference Friday. But he made one thing clear: lying to a grand jury is a serious matter.

“The truth is the engine of the criminal justice system,” he declared.

He also justified the indictments on the grounds of national security.

By lying to the grand jury and investigators, Libby kept prosecutors from uncovering the source of the Plame disclosure, he argued. In so doing, he endangered the safety of “classified” employees.

That’s sufficient cause in and of itself, irrespective of whether outing Plame was illegal, he reasons.

Maybe so. But it would be good to know: was all this for nothing?

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