Heavy imprint of Libby verdict
WASHINGTON — The felony conviction of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby is now history, but the aftereffects – and the issues that undergirded the case – will linger until the last day of George W. Bush's presidency.
On its own, the case of Vice President Dick Cheney's onetime chief of staff seemed a sideshow to weightier issues. No one, including Mr. Libby, was charged with the core offense under investigation: whether a CIA operative's identity was illegally leaked to the press.
But Libby's conviction Tuesday for lying under oath and obstructing a federal investigation will go down as a signal moment in President Bush's tenure. To critics of the Bush administration, the case became a stand-in for the Iraq war itself and shed light on the aggressive manner in which the usually secretive office of the vice president sought to discredit its opponents. To supporters of the administration and the Iraq war, the case was a waste of time and money, pursued by an overly zealous special prosecutor.
For Libby himself, the stakes are enormous. If his conviction stands, after asking for a retrial and the promised appeals, he is likely to face 1-1/2 to 3 years in prison, under federal sentencing guidelines. He also faces a lawsuit filed by the former CIA employee, Valerie Plame, and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who claim that the vice president and other officials, including Libby, conspired against him and his wife.
Looking at the modern history of scandal trials, analysts see the Libby case as the latest in a pattern.
"It reaffirms the age-old adage that it's not the crime, it's the coverup," says Michael Levy, a former federal prosecutor. "We saw it in Watergate, we saw it more recently in the corporate context with Arthur Andersen and Martha Stewart, and now we've seen it again in the political context with Scooter Libby."
Already, political players from various corners are anticipating a possible presidential pardon of Libby, with conservative editorial pages calling for it and Democrats calling on Mr. Bush not to do it.
The Libby conviction comes at a difficult time for the Bush White House. In poll after poll, a majority of Americans express unhappiness with the Iraq war, and now the administration is grappling with the exposure of appalling conditions faced by war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
"If [the Libby conviction] were alone, it wouldn't amount to that much," says Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But it comes with circumstances in Iraq, and the Walter Reed [situation] feeding into the Katrina sense of an administration not caring."
Second-guessing of the major players in the Libby case is likely to continue for some time. When it was revealed that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald had learned early in the investigation who the original leaker was – former top State Department official Richard Armitage – Libby defenders cried foul. The case should not have gone forward, they argue.
But in Mr. Fitzgerald's arguments and in post-trial comments, it became clear that his goal was to determine the range of actions in the vice president's office involving the public exposure of Ms. Plame – including the role played by Mr. Cheney himself. Libby's legal troubles came when the "umpire," Fitzgerald, got "sand thrown in his eyes," as the prosecutor put it.
Not at issue in the trial was whether Plame's employment was indeed classified information when her name appeared in the press, in a 2003 column by Robert Novak. Fitzgerald has said it was, but other legal experts disagree.
After the trial, Fitzgerald repeated a theme of his closing arguments, that a "cloud" hangs over the vice president's office. Before the Libby verdict, public speculation had centered on the possibility that a conviction might embolden Fitzgerald to take legal action against Cheney himself. But speaking after the verdict, Fitzgerald called the investigation finished and said he had no plans to pursue any other officials, unless new facts came to light.
The Plame investigation sprang from a 16-word sentence in Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address, in which he cited British intelligence in stating that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Africa. In July 2003, Mr. Wilson wrote a column stating that he had found no evidence of such Iraqi attempts during a fact-finding mission to Africa, and accused the administration of twisting intelligence to justify a war with Iraq.
According to Fitzgerald's argument against Libby, Cheney's office – and Libby in particular – swung into action to discredit Wilson. Libby's defense team argued that the senior aide did not deliberately make false statements under oath, but rather was a very busy man who could not be expected to remember everything he had said, and to whom and when.
After the trial, one juror stated that the jury believed that the Wilson matter – and his criticism of the Iraq war – was a central concern in Cheney's office, and that Libby's claims of memory problems were not credible. Still, juror Denis Collins said he and fellow jurors agreed with the defense argument that Libby had been hung out to dry by top presidential aide Karl Rove and other more senior officials.
"It seemed like ... he was the fall guy," Mr. Collins said. But, he added, that point did not negate the actions Libby took.
The Libby verdict represents a rare moment in US history, the criminal conviction of an official for actions taken while at the White House. In the past, top officials have been indicted, and most of them acquitted. The last time a White House official was found guilty was during the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan years.