Politics & Policy

Pardon Libby

President Bush should pardon I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The trial that concluded in a guilty verdict on four of five counts conclusively proved only one thing: A White House aide became the target of a politicized prosecution set in motion by bureaucratic infighting and political cowardice.

#ad#When partisans pounced on Bob Novak’s July 14, 2003, revelation that the wife of administration critic Joe Wilson worked at the CIA, they adopted Wilson’s paranoid persecution theory. Then a scandal-hungry media joined in. Novak’s unidentified administration sources were widely accused of criminal wrongdoing: having “outed” a covert agent.

The alleged motive for the leak was to punish Joe Wilson, whose account of his mission to Niger supposedly unmasked the administration’s manufactured case for the war in Iraq. The victim in this set piece was Valerie Plame Wilson, and the villains were Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, and Scooter Libby.

From the very beginning of the ensuing spectacle, petty agendas subverted justice. The CIA, at war with the White House, and in particular with the vice president’s office, referred the leak to the Justice Department, even though the agency certainly knew that there had been no criminal violation since Plame wasn’t “covert.” (According to the relevant statute, only the leak of a covert agent’s identity is a criminal act.) The CIA’s spokesman had also confirmed Plame’s employment to Novak, without sounding any alarms over the revelation of classified information. The referral to Justice–leaked to the media–was the act of an agency more concerned with shifting the blame for faulty Iraq intelligence than with protecting a supposedly vulnerable agent.

With the matter in the Justice Department’s lap, such critics as New York senator Charles Schumer demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor, claiming that then–attorney general John Ashcroft couldn’t oversee the probe because he had a conflict of interest. Even though there was no evidence that the department’s career prosecutors were unable to handle the case, Ashcroft and his top deputy, James Comey, quickly gave in to Schumer’s demands. Comey appointed his friend in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, as the special prosecutor, and gave him even more powers than the old independent counsels had.

None of this was a profile in courage on the administration’s part, but the true insanity of the situation was withheld from the public until years later, when we learned that, long before the Justice Department had appointed Fitzgerald, it knew who had leaked to Novak. Early in the investigation, deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage informed investigators that he had told Novak about Mrs. Wilson (although he left out the fact that he had also leaked to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward). But like the savvy bureaucratic infighter that he is, Armitage kept quiet publicly, allowing the vice president’s office to take the heat for something he had done.

So why did Fitzgerald go forward? Maybe someday he’ll tell us, but we’re not betting on it. Reasonable people can conclude that it was only Scooter Libby’s imperfect memory–not willful deception–that gave rise to the charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Among the supporting players–including CIA officials, Bob Novak, Woodward and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, and Time’s Matthew Cooper–no two participants in any conversation about Valerie Plame had the same recollection.

Whatever his motivations, Fitzgerald adopted the discredited Wilson’s script and focused his three-year investigation on Cheney, Libby, and Rove–and not, inexplicably, on others. Not on Armitage. Not on Ari Fleischer, either. The recent trial revealed that the former White House press secretary was granted immunity from prosecution, and that he admitted to telling two reporters about Plame’s employment. Those reporters were never even questioned. Nor did any charges arise from Fleischer’s faulty memory, even though a third reporter (Pincus) testified that Fleischer had told him too about Plame–something that Fleischer denied under oath.

There should have been no referral, no special counsel, no indictments, and no trial. The “CIA-leak case” has been a travesty. A good man has paid a very heavy price for the Left’s fevers, the media’s scandal-mongering, and President Bush’s failure to unify his own administration. Justice demands that Bush issue a pardon and lower the curtain on an embarrassing drama that shouldn’t have lasted beyond its opening act.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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