Independence Day for Libby

Whatever happened to "don't do the crime if you can't do the time," which allows tough-love conservatives to cheerfully sentence petty criminals to incarceration? Suddenly, no prison time for perjury and obstruction of justice is termed by this president to be a "harsh" penalty, because I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby will suffer enough with his reputation "forever damaged." Poor baby.

We will see just how damaged his reputation is as Libby comes to be celebrated on the right-wing lecture circuit with fees that will easily cover his wrist-slap of a fine. Can agents with the promise of an Ollie-North-style talk show be far behind? Once again, we have an example of politicians championing the slogans of law and order-until the criminal is one of their own, at which point they suddenly become bleeding-heart liberals eager to ease the pain of the misjudged underdog. Blame the victim for Libby's troubles; it was that outed CIA agent, Valerie Plame, who made him do it. Who told her to be married to a guy who dared to publicly criticize Libby's boss?

That's the easiest explanation for President Bush's commutation of the Libby sentence, but there is an even more odious possible cause for the president cutting loose his friend, the felon, hours after a unanimous appeals court panel ordered Libby to start serving his 30-month sentence. It's that old chestnut of honor among thieves: They didn't want Libby to have any incentive to squeal on higher-ups. Libby was never more than the fall guy whose usefulness to the prosecutor was that he was a lower-level scoundrel in a position to turn in his White House superiors.

The obstruction-of-justice and perjury charges of which Libby was convicted do not involve some minor technicality or even a non-crime as alleged by Mitt Romney: "I believe that the circumstances of this case, where the prosecutors knew that there had not been a crime committed, created a setting where a decision of this nature [Bush's decision] was reasonable." How odd that a leading Republican presidential candidate doesn't consider perjury and obstruction of justice to be crimes. But what he probably had in mind was the original focus of the investigation: to determine if government officials had participated in the outing of Plame as a means of discrediting her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had dared to criticize Bush's now totally discredited reasons for invading Iraq.

Precisely because prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was stonewalled in his investigation by Libby's perjury and obstruction of justice, we have no way of knowing whether that more serious crime was committed. Romney and others who are apologizing for the administration are in the position of accepting the word of a convicted perjurer as to the intent of his conversations with reporters and his insistence that his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, was not involved in his shenanigans.

It is, however, inconceivable, from everything we have learned of Cheney's operating style, that his chief of staff ever did anything, other than order lunch, without consulting with the vice president. That certainly goes for the nefarious activities that got Libby in trouble with the law in this instance. We do know, from a solid body of published insider memoirs, that Cheney was the key figure within the administration in pushing the Iraq invasion, and that he remains determined to this day to deny that there was any tampering with intelligence data in making his case for war.

We also know that it was Cheney, more than anyone else in the White House inner circle, who sought to counter criticism of the president, and that he was outraged that Wilson had gone public with his criticisms when Cheney and others in the administration continued to knowingly disseminate false information. That was the case concerning the bogus Niger yellow cake uranium acquisition by Iraq which the CIA had dispatched Wilson to investigate and which he, along with others, easily discounted.

Cheney certainly had a motive for wanting to destroy Wilson's credibility, which was the purpose of those leaked stories suggesting that Wilson-who had previously been honored by President George H.W. Bush for standing up to Saddam Hussein before the 1991 Gulf War-had gone to Niger on a joyful junket, and that his subsequent critique of the administration's perfidy was politically motivated.

What was politically motivated was the outrageous behavior of the vice president's chief of staff in the denigration of a dedicated civil servant and the president's rewarding that convicted liar with a commutation of sentence, effectively ending the pressure on Libby to 'fess up.

Robert Scheer is editor of and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.

(c) 2007

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