Worse than a crime

Editorial Notebook

February 17, 2007|By Will Englund

Trials are about stories, and the main story that has emerged from the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., which goes to the jury next week, isn't so much about his legal infractions but about his job performance.

This story, as sketched out by the cheerlessly relentless prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, casts Mr. Libby in the worst possible light as it describes his efforts to leak one little nugget of news back in 2003: the fact that former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had gone to Niger on behalf of the CIA to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain yellowcake uranium, and who had found them wanting, and who then wouldn't keep quiet about it, was in fact married to a CIA analyst, Valerie Plame.

The problem, according to this narrative, was not that Mr. Libby, chief aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was unethical or low-down or even feloniously inclined - all easily forgivable in the calculus of certain D.C. movers and shakers - but that he bungled the assignment.

Mr. Libby stands accused of incompetence.

Mr. Fitzgerald has elicited the acknowledgement that the identification of Ms. Plame came out of the State Department originally. Apparently, the first time her name was dropped into a conversation with a journalist was in June 2003, when Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, slipped it into a conversation with the famously deliberate Bob Woodward. But that was hardly a leak - Mr. Woodward writes books, and a book due out in the spring of next year is no vehicle for slamming a guy who's bothering you right now.

So, according to this narrative, when Mr. Libby got hold of the information about Ms. Plame - and not, as he told the grand jury, from Tim Russert of NBC - he decided in July to leak it to Judith Miller of The New York Times. Ms. Miller had been dogged in relaying the administration's case that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction posed a clear and present danger; she was both reliable and well-placed, writing for one of the country's most powerful news organizations. (This trial also tells a story about the Washington press corps in action, and it's not a pretty one.)

What Mr. Libby seems not to have taken into account, though, is that Ms. Miller had spent most of May embedded with a special unit in Iraq that was detailed to find the WMD, and - despite what she wrote in more than one story - that search team came up empty-handed. When Ms. Miller returned to Washington, she was no longer in favor with her editors, and, one way or another, nothing about Ms. Plame appeared in her paper.

What to do? Mr. Libby told Ari Fleischer, the White House press chief, who told Walter Pincus of The Washington Post (according to Mr. Pincus), but he was well known as a skeptic on the justifications for the war and did nothing with the information. Mr. Libby and Karl Rove told Matt Cooper, then of Time, but he was limited by its weekly deadline.

Eventually the news got to Bob Novak, the columnist, by way of Mr. Armitage and Mr. Rove. Mr. Novak did write about it, though he first vetted his column with Richard Hohlt, a Republican lobbyist who passed it on to the White House before Mr. Novak submitted it to his syndicate. And, after all this, the outing of Ms. Plame did nothing to deflect questions about the conspicuously absent WMD.

What a mess! Anyone in Washington who has that much trouble smearing someone else, and then gets so little out of it, ought to look for a new line of work.

Of course, Mr. Libby's defense team has yet another story to tell. It called a half-dozen reporters to the stand to testify that they hadn't learned of Ms. Plame from Mr. Libby, the theory being that if he hadn't told the six he wouldn't have told the two. The attorneys also kept coming back to the implication that the perjury charge against their client is unjust because everyone's memory is faulty, especially the busy Mr. Libby's - until a juror, of all people, asked if that didn't raise concerns about Mr. Libby's fitness for such an important job.

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