It took a jury ten days of deliberations to find I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Jr., the former chief of staff for Vice-President Dick Cheney, guilty of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to federal investigators. On one level, it’s hard to say why it took so long, because the evidence against Libby was both straightforward and overwhelming. The central issue in the case was how Libby learned that Valerie Plame Wilson, the wife of the diplomat turned Bush critic Joseph C. Wilson IV, worked for the C.I.A. Libby testified repeatedly that he had first been informed of her status in a telephone conversation with Tim Russert, the NBC newsman. But Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, called five witnesses, all of them former executive-branch colleagues of Libby’s, who said that they had each separately discussed Valerie Wilson’s employment with the defendant. In the capstone to the government’s case, Russert testified that he did not tell Libby that Wilson worked at the C.I.A., because, at the time of their phone call, he did not know it. It’s one thing to claim a faulty memory, as Libby did, through his lawyers, at the trial. It’s quite another to concoct an imaginary conversation, as the jury ultimately decided that Libby had done. But, if the evidence was so strong, why did the jury find the case so difficult?
The investigation arose, of course, after the C.I.A. sent Joe Wilson, a former Ambassador to Gabon, on a mission to Niger, in 2002. He went to look into reports that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium yellowcake, which is used in the production of nuclear weapons, in that country. Wilson found no such attempt by any Iraqis, and said nothing publicly about his trip for more than a year. But after he heard President Bush touting the nonexistent African connection as a justification for the invasion of Iraq, including in a now notorious passage in his State of the Union address, Wilson started speaking out, first to journalists and then, on July 6, 2003, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times. In prose that could have come from a middling spy thriller—“Through the haze, I could see camel caravans crossing the Niger River”—Wilson recounted his journey and raised the question of whether the war was based on, as he delicately put it, “the selective use of intelligence.”
Wilson had no more attentive reader than the Vice-President, who carefully underlined his copy of the Op-Ed and jotted a series of indignant questions for his staff in the margin. “Have they done this sort of thing before?” Cheney asked in his meticulous handwriting. “Send an Amb. to answer a question?” Most of all, the notes showed that Cheney was in no mood for innocent explanations. His last question suggested darkly, “Or did his wife send him on a junket?”
The famous Cheney snarl was practically audible. Ambassador Wilson had questioned the basis for the Iraq war, so he had to be discredited—in this case, by showing that his trip to Africa had been dreamed up by his wife, who was, indeed, a C.I.A. employee. (In fact, Valerie Wilson did not send her husband to Niger, which is not generally a sought-after destination for Washington junketeers.) Cheney’s intention was to defend the war by going on the offensive against critics like Wilson, and he wasn’t the only one in the Administration doing it. Gossip about the Wilsons was passed around with something close to glee. Ari Fleischer, the press secretary at the time, said that Libby told him that Valerie Wilson’s status was “hush-hush.” Richard Armitage, then the Deputy Secretary of State, confided to Bob Woodward in an interview in June, 2003, that Wilson’s “wife works in the agency.… Everyone knows it.” Woodward replied, paraphrasing Armitage, that she was “high enough up that she can say, ‘Oh, yeah, hubby will go.’ ” (The tape was played at the trial.) Saving string for his next book, Woodward did not disclose the information at the time, but Armitage was fond enough of this conversational nugget that he repeated it to Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist. So did Karl Rove, the White House aide, who was in on the secret, too. On July 14th, Novak wrote a column about Joe Wilson’s mission to Niger, which blew his wife’s C.I.A. cover. Republicans tend to look askance at the disclosure of the identities of C.I.A. agents, but it was only because of pressure from congressional Democrats that Fitzgerald was appointed to look into the leak.
In other words, the Administration reacted to Ambassador Wilson’s perfidy—his decision to tell the truth about one aspect of the fictional justifications for the war—like a crew of deskbound Tony Sopranos. Still, Libby’s colleagues were more careful than he was. Nobody was charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which requires a specific intent to disclose a secret agent’s identity. (Just to be safe, Fleischer demanded—and received—immunity before agreeing to coöperate with Fitzgerald.) No one except Libby was proved to be lying to investigators. And Libby has not said that anyone told him to perjure himself. Still, in a moral sense, if not a legal one, it was clear that the business of discrediting the Wilsons was a group undertaking, and it’s therefore easy to see why the jury struggled with laying blame for the whole operation on Libby. One juror, Denis Collins, said after the trial that he agreed with the defense claim that Libby was a “fall guy” for Cheney, among others, but Collins also thought that Libby was guilty; under the circumstances, both conclusions made sense. After the verdict, the Vice-President, as is his custom, wasn’t answering questions from the press. Perhaps Congress, if it finally gets around to investigating why the nation went to war under false pretenses four years ago, will have better luck with him.
The most fevered supporters of the war immediately began pressuring the President to pardon Libby. For the time being, Bush is probably hoping that the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which has been very accommodating to the Administration, especially in cases relating to the war on terror, will do the work for him and figure out a way to dispose of the case—or at least drag it out until after the 2008 election. (That’s the customary moment for controversial pardons, like the one Bill Clinton gave Marc Rich, the fugitive financier—who, as it happens, was once a legal client of Scooter Libby’s.) The ruination of Libby, by all accounts an intelligent and dedicated man, is not cause for celebration. But George Bush shouldn’t be giving pardons; he should be begging the nations.