White House besieged

October 30, 2005

Critics of the Iraq war often lament that the Bush White House has never been called to account for exaggerating - at best - evidence that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons in order to justify a pre-emptive attack against him.

Yet thanks to a kind of cosmic justice, a severe penalty for that offense is now being exacted upon President Bush and his team.

The indictment Friday of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, stemmed from charges that he lied to a federal grand jury about conversations with reporters concerning the identity of a covert CIA operative.

At its core, though, this case and the attendant controversy that seems to have all but undone a once-cocksure White House is not about individual lies, but rather a mass campaign of twisted facts and misinformation used to lead the nation into a war that has cost more than 2,000 American lives.

Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby were in the forefront of making the case that Iraq posed a threat too grave to ignore. When former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV began privately, then publicly, challenging that claim, Mr. Libby, by his own admission, passed information to reporters that could have undermined Mr. Wilson's credibility.

Even if Mr. Libby is acquitted of the charges against him, even if senior Bush aide Karl Rove is never charged, much damage to the president has been done.

The leak investigation has been a terrible distraction to the White House, particularly in recent weeks. Mr. Rove's presumed preoccupation with it has been blamed for a series of bungles - beginning with Mr. Bush's slow response to Hurricane Katrina and climaxing with the fiasco of Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Libby's prosecution could now turn into a proxy for a national debate over Mr. Bush's pretext for launching a war going so badly that it is dragging the president's poll ratings down to record depths.

Immediately at stake is the weakened executive's ability to win confirmation of the Supreme Court nominee he chooses to replace Ms. Miers.

Not far ahead are next year's congressional elections, in which, for a variety of reasons, the Democrats believe they have their best opportunity in years to wrest control from Mr. Bush's fellow Republicans.

It's not even certain the president can regain his footing in time to make productive use of the remaining three years of his term, which doesn't serve the country well.

Mr. Bush's critics couldn't have fashioned a much worse fate than the one brought about by his friends.

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