A Libby Verdict
There will be a great deal written and said in coming days about the frustrations of the Scooter Libby verdict — that it did not tell us whether someone deliberately blew Valerie Plame Wilson’s cover or erase serious concerns about the prosecutor’s abuse of the First Amendment. Let’s focus first on what the verdict does say.
One of the most senior officials in the White House, Lewis Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, was caught lying to the F.B.I. He appears to have been trying to cover up a smear campaign that was orchestrated by his boss against the first person to unmask one of the many untruths that President Bush used to justify invading Iraq. He was charged with those crimes, defended by the best lawyers he could get, tried in an open courtroom and convicted of serious felonies. Mr. Libby walked freely out of the court, had his say in public and will be allowed to appeal.
It was another reminder of how precious the American judicial system is, at a time when it is under serious attack from the same administration Mr. Libby served. That administration is systematically denying the right of counsel, the right to evidence and even the right to be tried to scores of prisoners who may have committed no crimes at all.
And although we still do not know the answer to the original mystery, the case provided a look at the methodical way that Mr. Cheney, Mr. Libby, Karl Rove and others in the Bush inner circle set out to discredit Ms. Wilson’s husband, Joseph Wilson IV. Mr. Wilson, a career diplomat, was sent by the State Department in 2002 to check out a British intelligence report that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the government of Niger for a secret nuclear weapons program. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Mr. Bush said: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
In July 2003, Mr. Wilson wrote in an Op-Ed article in The Times that what he had found did not support that claim. The specter of a nuclear-armed Iraq was central to Mr. Bush’s case for rushing to war. So, the trial testimony showed, Mr. Cheney orchestrated an assault on Mr. Wilson’s credibility with the help of Mr. Libby and others. They whispered to journalists that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked at the C.I.A. and that nepotism was the reason he had been chosen for the trip.
That is what we know from the Libby trial, and it is some of the clearest evidence yet that this administration did not get duped by faulty intelligence; at the very least, it cherry-picked and hyped intelligence to justify the war. What Mr. Wilson found, and subsequent investigations confirmed, was that there was one trip in 1999 — not “recently,” but four years before Mr. Bush’s statement — by an Iraqi official to Niger and that during that trip, uranium was never discussed.
What we still do not know is whether a government official used Ms. Wilson’s name despite knowing that she worked undercover. That is a serious offense, which could have put her and all those who had worked with her in danger. We also do not understand why the federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, chose to wage war with the news media in assembling his case, going so far as to jail a Times reporter, Judith Miller, for refusing to reveal the name of a confidential source.
The potential damage from that decision remains of real concern. But it was still a breath of fresh air to see someone in this administration, which specializes in secrecy, prevarication and evading blame, finally called to account.