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Libby's fibs

The verdict in the Plame affair may well be justice. But justice isn't always satisfying.

March 07, 2007

AFTER I. LEWIS "Scooter" Libby was indicted but long before his trial began, it was clear that he was not, in fact, the person who first leaked the secret identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters. He did not violate the law barring disclosure of agents. Libby was a loyal lieutenant to Vice President Dick Cheney, and he tried to drum up support for the Iraq war by undermining President Bush's critics -- including Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who questioned the administration's assertions that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa -- in conversations with reporters. But of course that's not why a jury convicted him Tuesday of four counts of obstruction of justice and perjury.

Libby is facing up to 25 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines because he lied, under oath, in the course of an investigation into a breach of national security. He told the authorities that he couldn't have compromised Plame because he didn't know who she was. Witnesses made it clear that he did, and Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald compared such lying to throwing sand in the eyes of an umpire.

Beyond that, there is little here for either critics or supporters of the Bush administration to sink their teeth into. Did Bush and his aides completely trump up the case for war and then set out to discredit anyone who called them on it? Did they instead allow themselves to be convinced too easily by evidence that tended to show them what they wanted to see? Or was the president acting reasonably on information that appeared solid at the time? Many people wanted those questions to be the subject of the Libby trial, but they weren't, and nothing revealed in the trial puts them to rest.

The case has been compared to the prosecution of Martha Stewart for lying to investigators who couldn't make the underlying charges of insider trading stick. But there is a difference. The lifestyle-guru industry was not known for holding itself above the law. The Bush administration, on the other hand, repeatedly claimed for itself the power to determine its own bounds, whether in the prosecution of alleged terrorists, the use of wiretaps or the definition of torture. It may be less than satisfying to see the law finally catch up to the administration in the form of perjury convictions against the vice president's ex-chief of staff. For now, though, it will have to do.

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