In Washington's scandal shuffle, perjury really isn't the point

And now, ladies and gentlemen, prepare for a dance demonstration, a cute little jig performed in two parts by various parties and factions in this town in the name of team support and self-preservation. Yes, it's time for the scandal shuffle, where people on the right and left change sides in the admonishment/explanation game as each maintains they have the high ground.

It goes a little something like this: Way back in the 20th century, there was a man named Bill Clinton who was president, who got caught in some rather unpresidential situations with an intern and who then got caught lying about it. His defenders, mostly Democrats, rushed to his defense to say that while they weren't pleased with what he did, they certainly didn't feel it warranted his being removed from office.

Nonsense, said his detractors, mostly Republicans. They certainly didn't appreciate his relationship with the intern, but more important, he lied to the American people and, at the very least, misled people investigating the affair. Perjury, they cried. This simply wasn't conduct becoming a White House occupant.

And now as the federal prosecutor on the Valerie Plame leak case considers bringing charges this week on whether Bush administration officials knowingly and deliberately leaked the name of the CIA operative, it all sounds so familiar, if backward.

Proving any potential targets knew Ms. Plame was undercover is difficult, but it was rumored this past weekend that the case against the Bush administration was centered on whether several high level aides had lied in their testimony to the investigation's grand jury. And suddenly it is now those with GOP ties saying there may not have been any crime committed in the Valerie Plame leak story and any attempt to get administration members on charges of lying to the investigation's grand jury are weak.

"[I] think we are seeing grand juries and US attorneys and district attorneys that go for technicalities, sort of a 'gotcha' mentality in this country," Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) said on "Meet the Press Sunday" when asked about the investigation. You don't have to read that aloud to hear the echoes of umpteen Democrats during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

If indictments for perjury are announced for key administration officials - such as Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff Lewis Libby, President Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove - there will be no shortage of voices from the Democratic side calling for them to step down.

One can only hope that somewhere in this town someone saved all those editorials during Clinton's investigation. Columnists on the right and left could just exchange old pieces and swap "Rove" for "Clinton." It would really save everyone time. Maybe former Clintonite Paul Begala and conservative Rush Limbaugh still have their old talking points and could trade.

If you're wondering who's right in the great scandal shuffle, don't. Anytime someone changes his or her beliefs simply depending on which team is in trouble, that person is exhibiting a severe case of intellectual dishonesty.

The real question though is how did perjury become the topic anyway? Whether or not laws were broken in this particular case is almost a moot point now. What has been established is this: When people in the Bush administration didn't like what they saw in a CIA report about Iraq's attempt to build nuclear weapons, they set about trying to discredit the person who crafted the report. That fact says much more than any obstruction charge or perjury count anyone affiliated with the White House might face.

It means that, confronted with uncomfortable facts on a very serious issue, this administration decided not to attempt to disprove anything but to go with the "how can you believe that guy?" approach. And that speaks volumes about the administration's inability to acknowledge information counter to what it believes, particularly on Iraq.

Some of the things it knew for certain: Saddam Hussein was building nukes; US forces would be greeted as liberators; and it wasn't an insurgency in Iraq, it was a just bunch of disorganized "dead enders."

In the end, Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove and company may be indicted by the federal prosecutor or they may not. Whatever happens, the tongues will start wagging in this town and the scandal shuffle will go from a cute, funny little jig to a mosh-pit extravaganza.

But in the larger sense politically, whether someone takes the fall for this particular scandal won't matter much - the list of policy indictments against this administration on Iraq is lengthy enough. And you don't need a federal prosecutor or a court to enumerate them.

Dante Chinni writes a twice monthly political column for the Monitor.

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