The 11 jurors in the Lewis "Scooter" Libby case yesterday came to the common-sense conclusion that the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney was guilty on four of five charges of perjury, lying, and obstruction of justice. But after the verdict one juror said the panel had wondered why higher officials had not been brought to justice. They felt Libby was a fall guy. In a case whose origins go directly back to misstatements made by President Bush and others about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, Libby's mistake was to have told his lies under oath.
To get Congress and the American public to support a war in Iraq, Bush and his top officials in 2002 and early 2003 wove a tissue of fabrications and manipulated intelligence about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda and its preparations for nuclear weapons. When former diplomat Joseph Wilson wrote a newspaper article in the summer of 2003 that started tugging on one of the threads in this web of deceptions -- that Iraq had tried to procure uranium in Africa -- evidence suggests that Cheney tried to discredit Wilson.
To do so, administration officials leaked the fact that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA official and had played a role in sending him to Africa in 2002 to track down the uranium rumor. Wilson discovered the rumor to be unfounded, and said so in a report to administration officials, only to see the rumor repeated in administration statements during the build-up to the war. Revealing Wilson's wife's role would plant the notion that the trip to Niger was a "junket," a phrase that Cheney used in notes he made on a copy of Wilson's newspaper article.
But the smear boomeranged. There is a law against disclosing an undercover CIA official's identity, and Cheney, Libby, Bush aide Karl Rove, and other officials had to testify before a grand jury. Libby's statements were persuasively rebutted by other testimony, leading to the charges against him.
Since violation of the law protecting CIA officials' identity, requires knowing intent, none of the leakers was charged with that. Yesterday, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said he did not plan to bring further indictments in the case. But the questions still echo that Fitzgerald asked in his final remarks to the jury: "What is this case about? Is it about something bigger?"
The jurors -- and the public -- know that the case is about an attempt by the vice president to discredit a former government official who had the audacity to challenge false statements about the war. Fitzgerald said the American people would know more about the "cloud over the vice president" and "the cloud over the White House" if Libby had provided straight answers. Now Cheney can lift that cloud by giving the public some straight answers of his own.