By Joe Conason
At long last, the fog of mystification generated by the Bush administration and the Washington media is lifting, so that everyone can see clearly why I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is on trial and why his prosecution is important. Whether or not the jury eventually finds the former White House aide guilty of perjury, the evidence shows that his bosses, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, have misled the public from the very beginning about the vengeful leaking of Valerie Plame Wilson’s CIA identity.
The question that now hangs over the president and the vice president is whether they lied to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald—the same crime for which their fall guy, Scooter, now faces possible imprisonment. According to published reports, the special counsel interviewed both Bush and Cheney during the summer of 2004. The only way for them to dispel the suspicion that they may have lied to him is to permit full disclosure of those interviews.
Doubts about the candor of Bush and Cheney date all the way back to September 2003, before the appointment of the special counsel, when the president supposedly declared his sincere determination to “get to the bottom of this.”
By “this” he meant the apparent conspiracy among administration officials to reveal that Wilson was an undercover CIA officer in an effort to discredit her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. A former U.S. ambassador and national security official, he had incurred the wrath of the Bush White House by revealing what he knew about the dubious justifications for invading Iraq.
“There’s been nothing—absolutely nothing—brought to our attention to suggest any White House involvement,” said Scott McClellan, then the presidential press secretary, in attempting to cover Karl Rove and the rest of the White House staff with a blanket exoneration.
We have long since learned otherwise. We know, for instance, that Rove, Libby and former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer were all involved in leaking Ms. Wilson’s identity to the media. We also know that Libby, by his own testimony, learned about her CIA identity from the vice president. They had hoped to discredit Joe Wilson by hinting at nepotism in his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger to gather information about alleged uranium trading with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. (Actually, he undertook the difficult journey to that unprepossessing nation as a public service, without pay.) In short, we know that top officials in the Bush White House were behind the campaign to smear the Wilsons.
Where does that leave the president and the vice president? Over the past several days, the outlines of Cheney’s role in the nasty attack on the Wilsons and the subsequent cover-up have become increasingly plain. He not only oversaw the activities of Libby, his chief of staff, but went so far as to order McClellan to “clear” Libby in a press briefing.
That incident came up during the testimony of David Addington, who now holds Libby’s old job as vice presidential chief of staff and was formerly counsel to the vice president. The defense brought into evidence a note written by Cheney himself explaining why he insisted that the White House press staff defend Libby just as vigorously as Rove.
The angry note said, “Not going to protect one staffer [plus] sacrifice the guy this Pres. asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.” Although Cheney had crossed out the words “this Pres.” and replaced them with the phrase “that was,” the reference to Bush remains perfectly legible—and deeply incriminating.
When the special prosecutor interviewed the president and the vice president during the summer of 2004, Bush was accompanied by private counsel and wasn’t placed under oath. But even if neither he nor Cheney was sworn during those encounters, that wouldn’t excuse them from telling the truth. To do otherwise would expose them to prosecution for making false statements to federal investigators—a felony—as well as possible counts of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Did the president ask Libby to take the fall for others in the White House? Did the president know the extent of the vice president’s involvement? When did he learn what Cheney, Libby, Rove and Fleischer had done to advance the scheme?
Most important, did Bush and Cheney tell the truth when special counsel Fitzgerald interrogated them about those issues? That is the inescapable question at the bottom of this case—and sooner or later, the Congress and the press must demand answers.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com).