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Issue Date:  March 16, 2007

Why Libby case will be remembered

I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Chief of staff and longtime close friend of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Convicted felon.

The conviction of Libby, for lying to FBI agents and to the grand jury investigating the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity, is one of those moments in legal history that only has significance if taken in context. Lying to the FBI and a grand jury is not honorable behavior, but how many people do we hear about being successfully prosecuted, following a lengthy and expensive investigation, and, as is likely in Libby’s case, spending some time in jail? Some wag on television compared it to convicting mobster Al Capone on tax evasion charges. It’s not getting at the heart of the matter, but it’s better than nothing. You go to court, as it were, with the evidence you’ve got.

So, Libby’s conviction won’t make the history books because of the resoundingly egregious nature of his offense. It will make the history books because he lied in the process of being investigated for his role in leaking the name of a CIA agent to the press -- another serious felony. And that eventuality was linked closely to the dominant point of view within the administration, one that required an attitude of invulnerability, righteousness and the sense of being beyond the reach of law.

That view, in turn, becomes significant because it is necessary to underwrite our assurance when we undertake campaigns of redemptive violence, as we have in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is difficult to bring religious principles into consideration these days without stirring up theocratic jingoism or getting into useless debates over individual interpretations of selective sacred texts. Isn’t it enough to say, however, that it would be impossible to find justification in the Christian scriptures for preemptive massive violence?

The projection of overwhelming power has no foundation in the Beatitudes; that notion, which knows no partisan limits, comes from somewhere else.

In Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald wrote following the trial that Libby “has long been one of the most well-connected neoconservatives in the country. Along with Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush and Norman Podhoretz, Libby was one of the 25 signatories to the founding statement of Bill Kristol’s empire-embracing Project for a New American Century in 1997.”

That initiative had Iraq in its sights, as Greenwald notes, long before Sept. 11, and long before the trumped up evidence for invading Iraq that was the subject of former Ambassador Joe Wilson’s curiosity when he took the trip to Niger in Africa, from which Iraq was allegedly importing material for nuclear weapons. The charge was incorrect. Wilson ultimately wrote a piece critical of Bush administration rationale for the invasion, and not long after, his wife’s identity as a CIA officer made its way into print.

The Libby case will also make the history books because of other realities made clear during the trial. This is a case in which the legal system showed it can serve in oblique but beneficial ways. What became disturbingly evident was that Libby was, indeed, the fall guy for many in the administration, not least among them his immediate boss, Mr. Cheney.

What also became clear was the bare-knuckles approach that Mr. Cheney and others in the administration employ when combating those who dare question their strategies and motivation.

New York Times columnist David Brooks laments what has happened to Libby because, guilt in this case aside, “I’ll always believe he’s a good man.”

“Yet that doesn’t begin to cover the sadness that this trial arouses,” he continued, “for the proceedings have revealed the arc of what the administration was and could have been.”

Since the period of 2003 covered by the trial, a time of “a feverish sense of mission” at the White House, cruel reality has worn away the sense of invincibility so that now, says Brooks, “there’s a greater tendency to match ends to means, and to actually think about executing a policy before you embark upon it. There’s much more tolerance for serious thinkers. … In short, this administration’s capacities have waxed as its power has waned.”

But hubris and intolerance for serious thought is not an inevitability for every administration. This administration has been an unusual experiment born of extremist ideologues, secrecy and a disregard for the Constitution and traditions of accountability.

Libby may indeed be a good man who toiled admirably as a diligent public servant, obedient to superiors.

The problem is, we have become reluctant, even reticent, when it comes to asking the essential questions about what is being served.

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2007

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