The opening statements in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby struck official Washington like twin thunderbolts, opening up a huge fissure in the Bush administration at the same time that everything else the security situation in Iraq, the Republican Party, the president’s approval rating is falling apart at the seams. With Scooter under fire from federal prosecutors and caught in a furious fusillade of mutual recriminations, what it all augurs is the final collapse of the War Party.
The defense fired off its big guns on the first day, with Libby’s lawyer, Ted Wells, rebutting Patrick J. Fitzgerald‘s contention that Libby had a motive to lie because the president had declared that anyone who leaked would be fired. (I note here that I’m citing not the "mainstream" media’s account of the proceedings, but that of a blogger who has gained entry to the trial as a reporter, the anonymous "Emptywheel," whose reportage on the background of this case is surely one of the investigative wonders of the blogging world):
"Mr. Libby was not concerned about losing his job. He was concerned about being set up. He was concerned about being the scapegoat.
"Mr. Libby said to the VP, ‘I think the White House people are trying to set me up, people want me to be the scapegoat. People in the White House want me to protect Karl Rove.’
"Cheney made notes of what Libby said. Notes show Libby telling the Vice President that he was not involved in leak.
"Cheney’s note: ‘Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.’
"The person who was to be protected was Karl Rove. Karl Rove was President Bush’s right hand person. Karl Rove was the person most responsible for making sure Bush stayed in office. He had to be protected ."
But who, exactly, is being set up here? Surely not just Libby, but also Libby’s boss. Libby is named in the indictment, yet it is the vice president who is really on trial here, as the prosecutor’s pretrial tactics and opening statement make clear. After all, it wasn’t just Scooter out there on his own planting stories in the media discrediting Ambassador Joe Wilson, implying that he’d been sent to the African nation of Niger on a "junket" at the behest of his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame. Behind Libby stood the shadowy figure of the vice president, directing the action from an undisclosed location. Yet the trial of his former chief of staff threatens to disclose his location at the very center of the conspiracy to "out" Plame.
Libby’s defense is (1) Rove did it, and he, Libby, is a "sacrificial lamb," the fall guy for the White House, and (2) he had no reason to lie about the Plame matter, that this was at the extreme periphery of his concerns, and, in "recalling" how he came upon the information that Plame was in fact a CIA agent, he simply failed to remember with any degree of accuracy because of all the weighty matters that he had to deal with in his capacity as chief of staff at the OVP.
Fitzgerald, for his part, will show that this is simply not the case, that the Plame matter was one of Libby’s central concerns, and that both he and Cheney could almost be said to be obsessed with Wilson’s accusations that the administration was cooking the intelligence to fit a preordained conclusion.
In his opening statement, Fitzgerald drew a portrait of an administration under increasing pressure to explain the provenance of the intelligence that fooled Congress and the American people into going along with the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. One key part of this intelligence was contained in the infamous "16 words" of Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address: shortly after the address was delivered, however, it came out that the story about Saddam seeking uranium in Niger was completely bogus and the documents supposedly backing up this tale had been forged. Yet the White House had been stuck with this tar baby and couldn’t get rid of it. Questions about the "16 words" were being asked, uncomfortable questions, and the White House was having a hard time answering them: finally, they issued a statement admitting for the first time ever! that they had been wrong. In the end, George Tenet took the fall but, then again, he hadn’t been the source of the "16 words." So where did these allegations come from?
In the meantime, however, other questions began to be raised, such as: who forged the Niger uranium documents? The forgeries, after all, were fairly crude, which is what enabled IAEA scientists to quickly debunk them using Google. Who was trying to lie us into war using such transparently dubious methods?
Someone had pulled a fast one on the president but who? It had to have been someone fairly high up. Or else how had such garbage made it onto the president’s desk?
The CIA triggered the investigation into how and by whom Plame and her operation were exposed, but it seems likely the probe might have been an outgrowth of a broader counterintelligence investigation into the entire affair, including the provenance of the Niger uranium allegations. If this could be traced back to the OVP, where so much of the bad "intelligence" originated, then that would explain the peculiar intensity of Scooter’s determined campaign against the Wilsons.
This president went to war on the strength of allegations that later turned out to be completely wrong. There were no WMD, no links to al-Qaeda, and no real chance that anything remotely approaching a liberal democracy could take root in the country once it had been "liberated" from the Ba’athist grip. They knew all this, yet they went ahead and did it anyway or, at least, that’s the strong impression the American public is getting. A full 58 percent believe the Bush administration deliberately misled Congress and the people on the WMD question.
Yet the great bulk of the ersatz intelligence came from the vice president and his cronies. Scooter’s trial is payback time for the Bush loyalists, who rightly feel betrayed. Feelings of betrayal are not limited, however, to the president’s camp, as Libby’s lawyer made clear in his opening statement. Poor Scooter, the "sacrificial lamb" he’s taking the fall for his boss, who is really the one on trial here.
Cheney is appearing as a witness for the defense, and his cross-examination by Fitzgerald promises to be one of those epic moments when truth is spoken to power. Cheney’s role in all this, as the behind-the-scenes manipulator of intelligence and master leaker of classified information, is going to be exposed for all the world to see. What remains to be seen is whether this classic confrontation will result in yet more indictments, and investigations, into matters not covered in this trial. Fitzgerald, you’ll remember, once compared Libby’s obstruction of the investigation to throwing sand in the investigators’ faces so that they couldn’t see who had exposed Plame or why. Yet this trial may go a long way toward clearing the air, so that finally investigators perhaps Fitzgerald himself can see their way to filing new charges, and not only against Libby.
This trial goes to the very heart of key questions now vexing the American public, the answers to which threaten or promise to change the face of our politics: how did we wind up in the middle of a civil war in Iraq? Who lied us into war? How did they do it and why did they do it? Before this trial is over, we may well have some pretty strong clues as to the answers.
Now that the Middle East democratization-by-force-of-arms project is sinking fast, the rats are deserting the ship with unseemly speed, and it’s every rodent for himself. The neocons, if they aren’t repudiating their past views, à la Fukuyama, are repudiating Bush. He didn’t put enough troops in, his "surge" isn’t big enough, he’s holding back from attacking Syria and Iran instead of going "faster, please!" as one neocon ideologue puts it. To hear the neocons tell it, the president’s crusade to "liberate" the Middle East from itself has stalled, due not to the limitations of American military power, but to a lack of presidential will. Their strategy of preemptive aggression didn’t fail, the neocons claim: this president failed.
I hate to say I told you so, but I did tell you so:
"The neocons who ginned up this war and committed crimes in the process have no loyalty to party, or even to ideology. Always single-minded in pursuit of their objective war in the Middle East they latched onto the GOP solely as a matter of convenience, and never bet all their chips on one party or the other. They have no more personal loyalty to George W. Bush than an intestinal worm has to its host. Less, as a worm infestation rarely leads to death, while this plague of neocons spells real trouble both legal and political for the Bushies and the Republican Party, both of which stand to be discredited in the eyes of the voters and of history for a long time to come."
Oh, and one more thing: all that pretrial talk about a presidential pardon for Scooter seems pretty silly now that his lawyers are aiming their main fire at the White House. It seems the Libby defense team is employing what I have called the "Samson option" and that means the beginning of a vicious civil war within the War Party, with the Bush loyalists on one side and the neocons nested in the OVP on the other, with each trying to blame the other for the various debacles that have befallen this administration and now seem to be culminating in a veritable tsunami of ill tidings for the GOP.
With the defection of Sen. John Warner and several other GOP big-hitters from the ranks of the pro-surge Republicans, the civil war inside the GOP and the conservative movement is going full blast. The neocons are desperately fighting to retain control over policy particularly Iran policy but their grip is loosening, and this trial may pry their fingers from the big prize, i.e., the vice president’s office.
When this scandal first came to light, I asked the following:
"If Libby is implicated as having anything to do with Plame’s ‘outing,’ then that, in turn, implicates Cheney, who must take responsibility. The vice president’s resignation, under these circumstances, is a distinct possibility. Will we soon hear an announcement that he’s retiring ‘for health reasons’?"
The only problem with this quasi-prediction was the word "soon" we’ve had to wait over three years to come to the point where Cheney himself has come under increasing scrutiny, yet finally the day of reckoning approaches.
In answer to all those who have written me, over the years, disdaining my hope that this trial would ever reveal anything about the inner workings of the War Party and their crimes, claiming that "they" would put a stop to it before anything of value saw the light of day, I have to say: you were wrong. The republic is not doomed: its defense mechanism is working, even if it took a while to rev it up.
So pull up a chair, kick back, and get out the refreshments: it’s not just Scooter and his boss who are in the dock. The War Party is on trial in Judge Walton’s courtroom, and the odds are damn good that they’ll get the verdict they so richly deserve.