Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, stands indicted for lying to a grand jury and obstructing investigators probing the outing of an undercover CIA operative. These are serious charges brought by a serious prosecutor. They are not, as some would have it, "technicalities." You can't have justice unless people cooperate with criminal investigations and tell the truth when they have sworn an oath to do so.
That said, one man's apparent attempt to subvert justice is not what is most significant about this case. Fundamentally it has always been about a White House so determined to go to war with Iraq that it was willing to use any intelligence, however dubious, to make that happen.
It worked; Cheney, Libby and those around them -- the White House Iraq Group -- beat the drum against Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction so effectively that they propelled the United States into an invasion.
A problem developed, however: Saddam Hussein had no WMD, and if the White House had listened to saner heads in the State Department, the CIA and the International Atomic Energy Agency, it would have known that before the war started. Perhaps there might not even have been a war, or 2,000 dead Americans, or tens of thousands of dead Iraqis.
When the dust of combat started to settle and it began to be apparent that there were no WMDs in Iraq, the White House's bogus prewar intelligence -- including claims that Saddam had sought to purchase uranium in Niger -- began to be challenged by Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had gone to Niger for the CIA. The Bush administration went immediately to its well-worn political smear strategy: It attacked Wilson's integrity, and in that effort it revealed that his wife was a CIA operative.
The CIA sought an inquiry, which led to the involvement of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, to the indictments handed up Friday against Libby and to Fitzgerald's continuing investigation.
Now the American public will get an extended discussion not only about the outing of a CIA agent and the alleged obstruction of justice that followed, but about how the hollow case for war was built.
It should be otherwise; that discussion belonged in Congress, not in the courts. But it didn't occur there because this Congress is so closely tied to the Bush administration and has so thoroughly abrogated its oversight responsibilities.
The answer to this larger issue is clear, even if Congress won't spell it out: A small cabal, centered on Cheney and Libby but with allies in the Defense Department, decided the United States needed to take out Saddam Hussein. They appear not to have cared that their information was weak, so arrogant were they in the rightness of their cause.
When it became clear they had been horribly wrong, they admitted nothing. Instead, they lashed out at their critics. Lewis Libby is charged with going a serious step too far. He may be the only one charged with crossing a legal line, but many in the Bush administration crossed moral ones on Iraq. Indicted or not, they are culpable.
© 2005 The Star Tribune