Looking back at the Scooter Libby saga. How President Trump just corrected one of President Bush's greatest disgraces
In March of 2003 we went to war in Iraq.
As part of the runup to the war, President George W. Bush had made this statement in his 2003 State of the Union address two months earlier: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
A straight line can be drawn from those sixteen words to President Trump’s pardon of Lewis “Scooter” Libby a decade and a half later.
It is a complicated story and shows the bitterness and political divisions in 21st century America.
In July of 2003, after the war started, former ambassador Joseph Wilson denied Bush’s State of the Union statement asserting in a “New York Times” op-ed that he had been sent to Niger at the behest of the CIA in 2002 and had returned to report that the suspicion that the Iraqis were in that country trying to buy uranium was unfounded. He claimed that his report was disregarded in the service of war-fever propaganda. The “New York Times” and other media kept this story on the front page for weeks. Mr. Wilson became an overnight celebrity. Leaders of the Democratic Party (not including Bill or Hillary Clinton) took the excuse provided by Mr. Wilson to call the President a liar in the middle of a war.
Edward Kennedy: “All the evidence points to the conclusion” that the Bush administration “put a spin on the intelligence and a spin on the truth.” John Kerry: “It is time for a president who will face the truth and tell the truth.” John Edwards: “The administration has a problem with the truth.” This and more was fed by the Wilson op-ed.
All this was bad enough but it soon took a nastier turn.
After Mr. Wilson wrote his op-ed, a columnist, the late Robert Novak, wrote that Mr. Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame worked at the CIA.
The Wilson story then shifted to this: Someone in the Bush administration had “outed” Ms. Plame, in retaliation for her husband’s action. Mr. Novak, following journalistic ethics, would not reveal his source.
The public identification of Ms. Plame was, by this reckoning, a violation of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act and endangering to Plame. The anti-Bush mood was represented by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution which editorialized that the administration’s conduct came “perilously close to treason.”
President Bush was pressured to appoint a Special Prosecutor. The attorney general recused himself and his deputy, James Comey, appointed Patrick Fitzgerald who as a federal prosecutor had convicted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Scooter Libby, Chief of Staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, was interviewed by Mr. Fitzgerald in October. Speculation was rife that either Karl Rove, President Bush’s Chief of Staff, or Vice President Cheney or perhaps even Mr. Bush had authorized the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity.
This all happened by late 2003. Later events showed that:
• By the time that he approached Mr. Libby, Mr. Fitzgerald knew who the leaker was. It was an Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Armitage. Mr. Armitage who opposed the war in Iraq told what he had done to his boss Secretary of State Colin Powell and to the FBI who passed it on to Mr. Fitzgerald who kept the disclosure secret. Mr. Armitage’s comment to Mr. Novak about Ms. Plame’s employment had, he maintained, been careless and not any kind of retaliation. Other than admitting it to Secretary Powell and the FBI he kept silent as did Secretary Powell. Mr. Fitzgerald continued to investigate Mr. Libby. In sum: Early on Mr. Fitzgerald knew who outed Ms. Plame, Mr. Libby’s administration colleagues left him twisting in the wind throughout a legal ordeal and Mr. Fitzgerald let the country think a crime may have been committed by people close to President Bush or Vice President Cheney when he already knew better.
• It was debatable whether Ms. Plame’s position at the CIA was covered by the Identities Protection Act. The Act makes it a crime to reveal the identity of a “covert” intelligence agent. Ms. Plame was a midlevel employee stationed at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. No one has ever been charged let alone convicted of the crime of revealing her identity.
• Although Mr. Wilson claimed that his wife had not recommended him for the mission to Niger, written documents refuted that.
• When the CIA debriefed Mr. Wilson after his mission in 2002, the agency’s conclusion was that Mr. Wilson’s findings supported the claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy processed uranium in Niger.
• In 2004 by the Senate Intelligence Report noted that Mr. Wilson confirmed that Iraq had approached Niger, whose main exports are uranium and goats, and intelligence analysts concluded that his report added nothing else to their previous knowledge.
• The “Financial Times,” of London, a frequent critic of the Bush administration handling of the war in Iraq, noted that “European intelligence officers have now revealed that … human and electronic intelligence sources from a number of countries picked up repeated discussions of an illicit trade in uranium from Niger. One of the customers discussed by the traders was Iraq.” The Butler Report issued in England at the same time reached supporting conclusions: “We conclude also that the statement in President Bush’s State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that ‘The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa’ was well-founded.”
So, starting into 2004 Scooter Libby was the subject of an investigation when the prosecutor knew that the leaker was someone else, for a potentially non-crime. Mired in his own legal defense, Scooter Libby’s voice was lost to an administration in the midst of war.
In 2007 Mr. Libby was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined $250,000. The prison sentence was commuted in June 2007 by President Bush, voiding the prison term. We recall late night comedian jokes about “Scooter” facing rape in prison
But to be clear: the assessment by the jurors was the Mr. Libby had misled investigators and grand jurors about conversations he had with reporters about sources. His conviction on four counts came down essentially to a dispute over Mr. Libby’s claim that Tim Russert of NBC had told him about Ms. Plame. Mr. Russert said Mr. Libby had brought up Valerie Plame in a July 10, 2003 discussion. Mr. Libby told the grand jury that Mr.Russert did.
Some details are important and cut in Mr. Libby’s favor. Mr. Russert first told the FBI it was possible he told Mr. Libby about Ms. Plame, but by the time of the trial Russert said he was sure he had not done so. Neither Mr. Libby nor Mr. Russert had notes had notes from the phone call.
Additionally, on October 2003, NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell reported on the air that it was “widely known” in Washington that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. Two years later — after Libby’s indictment and Russert’s emergence as a player in the case — she denied she knew about Plame’s wife until Mr. Novak’s wrote about it. However, the Judge would not allow Mr. Libby’s lawyers to call Ms. Mitchell to the stand or play tapes televised comments to question Russert’s memory.
In the absence of this evidence, one juror said of Mr. Russert. “I thought he was very credible. A lot of people thought he was very credible.”
One reporter, Judith Miller of the New York Times was later to emerge again in the Libby saga.
A year later Mr. Bush refused at the end of his term to issue Mr. Libby a pardon, infuriating Vice President Cheney. Mr. Libby a lawyer was left with disbarment, financial ruin and a felony conviction.
In 2010 the movie “Fair Game” came out glamorizing Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame purporting to tell a story of their standing up to the Bush administration. Ms. Plame called the movie “accurate,” and Mr. Wilson said he hoped the movie would help people “who don’t read” or who have “short memories” to understand the period. But the generally anti-Bush “Washington Post” blasted them both. “‘Fair Game’. . . is full of distortions — not to mention outright inventions. . .. Hollywood has a habit of making movies about historical events without regard for the truth; ‘Fair Game’ is just one more example.”
The public tide was starting to turn in Scooter Libby’s direction.
But it moved slowly.
In 2015 reporter Judith Miller realized that her testimony that Mr. Libby had discussed Mr. Plame’s CIA status with her was mistaken. The explanation had to do with a State Department cover that Ms. Plame had and the difference between “bureaus” which the State Department has versus “divisions” that the CIA has. Ms. Miller was unaware that Ms. Plame had the State Department cover until she read it in a book by Ms. Plame and had written in her notes of her conversation with Mr. Libby that Ms. Plame worked in a bureau, thinking erroneously that it meant the CIA. This seems scatterbrained for a reporter until one considers her claim that Mr. Fitzgerald knew the difference, knew of the cover and yet allowed her to draw the wrong conclusion. Mr. Fitzgerald had called her testimony “critical” to the case in his summation for the jury, and Ms. Miller says that the prosecutor twice said that he would drop all charges against Mr. Libby if he offered evidence against Mr. Cheney. Mr. Libby had no evidence to trade, and Mr. Fitzgerald then set out to ruin Mr. Libby for supposedly lying about what may have been a non-crime.
Ms. Miller: “Had I helped convict an innocent man?”
It was too late for appeals but in 2016, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reinstated Scooter Libby’s law license to practice in Washington DC after a legal disciplinary board submitted “credible evidence” in support of his innocence.
Last month Mr. Trump issued a full pardon saying: “I don’t know Mr. Libby but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.”
Valerie Plame said: “Shortly (after her husband’s op-ed) senior White House officials betrayed my identity to various media sources. I was at the time a covert CIA ops officer. Joe and I were subjected to years of character assassination….” Our comment: As to the first sentence, Ms. Plame knows that no one from the White House was charged with leaking her identity, there is no evidence that they did and that an antiwar figure did so with no bad motivation and was not charged with any crime. As to the second sentence that is a subject of debate at least by the time her husband become a public figure. As to the third, that is probably the case from some in the political world but in other circles – and some powerful ones – they were also lionized.
Mr. Cheney’s response: “He is innocent, and he and his family have suffered for years because of his wrongful conviction. I am grateful today that President Trump righted this wrong by issuing a full pardon to Scooter, and I am thrilled for Scooter and his family.” Our comment: We wouldn’t add or subtract from that.
Mr. Bush’s spokesperson: “President Bush is very pleased for Scooter and his family.” Our comment: We have no comment.
Some questions: Did Mr. Fitzgerald play dirty and confuse the country? Was President Bush a coward not to pardon Mr. Libby as he left office in 2009? Was Richard Armitage a coward to sit quietly during Mr. Libby’s ordeal? Is Mr. Trump sending a message to such targets of the Robert Mueller probe as Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen that he has their back and that they will get pardons if they hang tough? Is former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe feeling dread? Should reporters including the late Tim Russert have docilely gone into court to testify about their sources or should they have protected the freedom the press by refusing? Did the CIA care in 2002 or later that Mr. Wilson went public with a mission? In 2003, Mr. Libby was a strong advocate for a “surge” in Iraq to put down the sectarian fighting, a strategy that was finally implemented four years later to great effect. If he had not been removed to defend himself, would his arguments have prevailed and the war ended earlier?
All this that would be a different post.
As noted recently, back in 1993, First Lady Hillary Clinton’s friend and law partner Vincent Foster wrote in a suicide note that Washington DC was where “ruining people is considered sport.” The Scooter Libby saga is further evidence that Mr. Foster was right and that public nastiness is one of our great problems.