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The substance of the offense


There has finally been an indictment handed down in the saga of Valerie Plame, and it is about time. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, was indicted this last Friday on five counts of lying to investigators and the grand jury. I personally have been convinced by the reports of the course of Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s investigation that Cheney himself, along with Karl Rove, were instrumental in the exposure of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent and the subsequent coverup of government involvement in that exposure, and hope that they too will eventually be indicted and subsequently convicted.


From the discussion I have seen and read about the indictment, however, I think that it is absolutely paramount to make one thing clear: this is not your average indictment for perjury.

What I mean by that is that the comparisons that I have already started to see between Libby’s indictment and the scandal surrounding the attempted impeachment of President Clinton for perjury are absolutely without merit. There is as little in common between the two perjuries as there is between the approval rates of the two presidents.

The perjury, for which Clinton was never prosecuted, that led to the impeachment effort by congressional Republicans, was that he famously told a grand jury that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Clinton just as famously had an explanation for why his phrasing was not technically lying, but leaving out the legal parsing that Clinton understandably engaged in, under the everyday uses of those terms, let’s call a spade a spade: he lied. Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and he performed some entertaining verbal gymnastics to willfully obscure the truth.

But to understand why I and so many other Americans still regard Kenneth Starr’s Ahab-like pursuit of Clinton, even with the allegation of perjury at the end of it, as a total waste of time and taxpayer money, you have to look at why Starr had Clinton before the jury. Starr’s stint as independent counsel, without which he likely would be on Bush’s current short list of Supreme Court nominees, started out investigating some land deals in Arkansas that became known as Whitewater. The investigations of the real estate transactions, which lost the Clintons tens of thousands of dollars, completely exonerated both Bill and Hillary Clinton—neither was ever charged or indicted for anything having to do with Whitewater. But as that investigation ran out of steam without any blood drawn from the Clintons to show for it, Kenneth Starr broadened his inquiry into a fishing expedition for anything that could embarrass the Clintons. And he found it in Monica Lewinsky.

Does that make it perfectly acceptable, as a moral truism, for Bill Clinton to cheat on his wife and then attempt to hide it? Of course not. But when a special prosecutor is appointed with my taxes to investigate potential misdeeds around real estate in Arkansas and doesn’t find any, it is not a legitimate or appropriate use of governmental time and money to then go trawling through the President’s private life. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think Clinton’s infidelities with Monica Lewinsky were relevant to his functioning as President or the functioning of the White House or government as a whole.

That is most emphatically not the case with Scooter Libby. This case started with allegations that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons, from Niger. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who incidentally served as the acting US ambassador to Iraq during the first Gulf War, was sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate the claims. It is hard to imagine a better person for the job: in his twenty-year diplomatic career, he had served in Niger while that country’s uranium business developed, held various diplomatic positions in Africa including Ambassador to Gabon, another African company that produced uranium, and was senior director for African Affairs in the 1990s at the National Security Counsel with a portfolio that explicitly included the production of uranium in Africa. His policy knowledge as well as extant network of connections within Niger allowed him to swiftly and convincingly ascertain that the documents purporting to show Iraq’s attempt to purchase uranium from Niger were forged, and no such transactions had or would be taking place. His report was corroborated by two other investigations, by the then-Ambassador to Niger Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick and Marine Corps General Carleton Fulford.

These reports were ignored by the Bush White House, as they did not help their inexorable march towards attacking Iraq, and in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush trumpeted Saddam Hussein’s attempts to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger as proof that if the U.S. military did not attack Iraq and depose Hussein, we would face the prospect of mushroom clouds over American cities.

Six months later, after unsuccessful attempts to determine why his conclusions had apparently been ignored, Joseph Wilson wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” A week later, Robert Novak published a column in which he revealed the name of Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, and the fact that she worked as a covert CIA operative, thereby putting her and everyone she worked with abroad in danger.

Since then, particularly hard-headed conservatives have attempted to justify the exposure of Plame as trying to show that Wilson’s selection to go to Niger was nepotism, and his conclusions therefore suspect. This ignores the obvious fact of his qualifications and that his conclusions were identical to two other independent investigations.

The real reason is more like what Karl Rove told NBC’s Chris Matthews: “Wilson’s wife is fair game.” The White House—specifically Rove, Cheney, and Libby—knew that such an irreversible strike at a dissenter would chill any future whistle-blowers. In one leak, they destroyed Plame’s entire career. If that is what happens to the families of people who speak out against the White House—even such highly-placed persons as ambassadors—what are the chances that others will be willing to speak up the way Wilson did in the future?

That’s why Libby’s perjury is so important. The perjury that he is indicted for is the substance of his offense. In order to prevent the White House from marching like jack-booted thugs on the backs of loyal Americans who try to tell the truth to the public, the people responsible for such a despicable vendetta have to be exposed and punished. Libby lied to a grand jury, lied to the special prosecutor, and lied in the direct attempt to keep the identity of those thugs secret. As long as the people responsible for Plame’s exposure walk the corridors of power of the White House, potential truth-tellers know that they will face immediate and harsh reprisals. This is not about titillating sexual improprieties in the Oval Office. This is about repression of the American people the likes of which have not been seen before. And it is about time that those cockroaches were exposed.

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