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 the jury eventually finds the former White House aide innocent or 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 C.I.A. 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 and disgrace. According to published reports, the special counsel interviewed both Mr. Bush and Mr. 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 Messrs. 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 Ms. Wilson was an undercover C.I.A. officer in an effort to discredit her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. A former U.S. ambassador and national-security official, Mr. Wilson had incurred the wrath of the Bush White House by revealing what he knew about the dubious justifications for the invasion of 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 Mr. Rove, Mr. Libby and former Presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer were all involved in leaking Ms. Wilson’s identity to the media. We also know that Mr. Libby, by his own testimony, learned about her C.I.A. identity from the Vice President. They had hoped to discredit Mr. Wilson by hinting at nepotism in his C.I.A.-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 discredit the Wilsons.
Where does that leave the President and the Vice President? Over the past several days, the outlines of Mr. 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 his chief of staff, but went so far as to order Mr. McClellan to “clear” Mr. Libby in a press briefing.
That incident came up during the testimony of David Addington, who now holds Mr. 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 Mr. Cheney himself, explaining why he insisted that the White House press staff defend Mr. Libby just as vigorously as Mr. Rove, whom the Vice President seems to have blamed for the exposure of the conspiracy.
The angry note said, “not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy this Pres. asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.” Although Mr. Cheney had crossed out the words “this Pres.” and replaced them with the phrase “that was,” the reference to Mr. Bush remains perfectly legible—and deeply incriminating.
According to published reports, the special prosecutor conducted interviews of the President and the Vice President during the summer of 2004. Those reports indicate that Mr. Bush, accompanied by private counsel, wasn’t placed under oath during his interview. But even if neither he nor Mr. 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 Mr. Libby to take the fall for others in the White House? Did the President know the extent of the Vice President’s involvement in the effort to ruin the Wilsons? When did he learn what Messrs. Cheney, Libby, Rove and Fleischer had done to advance that scheme?
Most important, did Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney tell the truth when Mr. Fitzgerald and his investigators 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.