Trial does damage to many reputations

Analysis

March 07, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's conviction ripped through the nation's capital yesterday like a late-winter storm.

Damage was widespread. The White House clearly took the worst hit, but almost all of those involved in the case seemed to have suffered - including Washington's news media and even, at least in the eyes of his critics, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the victorious prosecutor.

Found guilty on four criminal counts of obstructing justice, perjury and lying to investigators, Libby was dealt a severe blow by the verdict. It also stung those around him, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who was his immediate boss, and President Bush, whom Libby served as a special assistant.

Bush was only tangentially involved, at least according to testimony and documents in the case. At Cheney's request, the president agreed to declassify secret information that Libby, at Cheney's direction, then leaked to the press as part of a broader effort to defend Cheney's reputation and discredit anti-war criticism.

George C. Edwards III, a Texas A&M University political scientist, said the Libby verdict would damage Bush's legacy. Information that came out in the case reflects badly on Bush's judgment, both in terms of his "decision to go to war and the decision to choose Dick Cheney as vice president," he said.

Edwards said he wasn't sure how much lower Cheney's already-anemic popularity rating could sink, though there were fresh calls yesterday for the vice president to step down.

Democrats called the verdict overdue justice for an administration that has frequently used bareknuckle tactics against its opponents.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid declared that it was "about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics," adding that the trial had "revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney's role in this sordid affair."

Special counsel Fitzgerald, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, said that his investigation was effectively over, with Libby the only person to have been prosecuted. No one was charged with leaking the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame, whose unmasking caused the CIA to request a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

It was left to one of the jurors to comment on the broader implications of the trial, which ended with a number of unresolved mysteries, including questions about Libby's often convoluted grand jury testimony, the full extent of Cheney's activities and what Bush knew about the vice president's role.

Libby was "the fall guy," said Denis Collins, adding that he and other jurors felt sympathy for Libby. In their private discussions, Collins recounted, members of the jury said "a number of times, `What are we doing with this guy [Libby] here? Where's [Karl] Rove? Where's - you know, where are these other guys?'"

Fitzgerald, who once compared perjury, one of the crimes that Libby was convicted of, to "throwing sand in the umpire's face," defended his decision to prosecute Cheney's top aide.

The prosecutor said that when he got the case, in late 2003, he already knew that Libby did not leak the CIA agent's name. But he also knew that Libby's statements to FBI agents conflicted with those of Tim Russert of NBC News, who became a star government witness in the trial.

"To me, it's inconceivable that any responsible prosecutor would walk away from the facts that we saw in December 2003," said Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, who was given the politically sensitive case after senior Justice Department officials recused themselves. "If someone knowingly tells a lie under oath during an investigation, it's every prosecutor's duty to respond by investigating and proving that if you can."

Former federal prosecutor Joseph E. diGenova disagreed. He called the charges against Libby "a questionable crime at best" and said "history would judge" Fitzgerald's decision to prosecute.

DiGenova and other critics, including his wife and law partner, Victoria Toensing, contend that CIA employee Plame was not a covert agent as defined in the law and that her unmasking was a less serious crime as a result. Fitzgerald, in his comments to reporters, described her status as "classified" rather than covert.

Three weeks of testimony in the case shed unflattering light on White House aides, who schemed behind the scenes to retaliate against war critic Joseph C. Wilson IV, Plame's husband.

Washington reporters, who were called to testify, didn't fare much better than the administration officials. The case became a window on the media corps, exposing personal rivalries among prominent journalists and revealing exactly how they go about gathering information from powerful figures.

"People may have learned some really disturbing truths about how journalism works in Washington," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "When you're dealing with politicians, you're dealing with spin all the time and political payback and political consequences. And you're trading information, oftentimes."

Fitzgerald maintained yesterday that "questioning reporters should be a last resort in the very unusual case," but Dalglish predicted that prosecutors and defense lawyers won't think twice about calling reporters as witnesses - which will make sources less willing to provide information to the news media.

"I think the image of the White House was damaged. I think the image of the press corps was damaged. I think the image of the prosecution was damaged," she said. "I don't think anybody involved in this entire case looks very good."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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