Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lewis Libby and Journalists

Republican Politics, American Style
Published March 22nd 2007in Metro Eireann
By Charles Laffiteau

On Tuesday March 7th 2007, Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s long time right hand man and Chief of Staff, became the first Bush White House official to be convicted of a felony while serving in an official government capacity. He was convicted on 4 of the 5 felony counts he was indicted for, including counts for lying to the FBI, a Federal Grand Jury and for obstruction of justice. He is the highest ranking White House official to be convicted of a felony since the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980’s.

The case originally stemmed from an investigation into who in the Bush Administration had leaked the identity of a 20 year undercover CIA agent named Valerie Plame Wilson, to conservative pundit Robert Novak, in an attempt to discredit her husband, former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Ironically we now know that two of Mr. Novak’s sources for the original leak were Richard Armitage, Bush’s deputy Secretary of State and Karl Rove, the Presidents chief political advisor who confirmed her CIA identity in a phone call with Mr. Novak. It appears that neither of these officials will ever be charged with a crime however, even though the special prosecutor has evidence that Karl Rove also initially lied to the FBI and the Grand Jury about his role in leaking Valerie’s CIA identity to the press.

Mr. Rove avoided an indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice, by suddenly recovering his memory of discussing Ms. Plame with Time reporter Matthew Cooper. He did so only after learning from his lawyer, Robert Luskin that he was likely to be indicted for not disclosing this in previous testimony to both the FBI and the Federal Grand Jury investigating the leak of Ms. Plame’s CIA ties.

The special prosecutor’s evidence against Karl Rove centred on a one week period in May of 2003 when Mr. Rove discussed Ms. Plame’s CIA identity with 2 reporters, Robert Novak and Matthew Cooper, and then reported this back to other high level White House officials. Karl Rove also discussed with his White House colleagues, the political importance of countering former Ambassador Wilson’s claims that the Bush administration had knowingly twisted pre-war intelligence regarding Iraq’s efforts to obtain uranium from Niger.

Mr. Libby also had a role to play in discrediting former Ambassador Wilson, but not as the first administration official to leak the information about his wife being an undercover CIA operative. He sought to further the campaign to discredit Mr. Wilson in private discussions with Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and NY Times reporter, Judith Miller during which he also discussed Ms. Plame’s true identity. When questioned about these conversations by the FBI, Libby lied and claimed he had first learned of Valerie’s CIA role from NBC TV newsman Tim Russert, instead of other White House officials like his boss Dick Cheney.

Mr. Libby concocted this story in an attempt to cover up the Bush Administration’s whispering campaign, which was designed to discredit Mr. Wilson and defend the Bush administration’s use of discredited and false intelligence about Iraq trying to obtain uranium from Niger to justify the US invasion of Iraq. Mr. Libby did not want the public to learn that his boss, Vice President Cheney had asked the President to selectively declassify a top secret document so that the information could then be leaked to the press in an attempt to discredit Ms. Plame’s husband.

The trial of Mr. Libby was notable for exposing the sometimes incestuous relationships between Washington DC based journalists and the government officials they rely on as sources for their news stories. It also showed the way in which government officials sometimes use the press in an attempt to mislead the public, in this case to help defend the US government’s reasons for invading Iraq, most notably Bush’s claim that we had to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his “weapons of mass destruction” which have never been found.

Additionally, trial testimony showed that Bush administration officials tried to use the press to discredit their critics by whispering that Mr. Wilson had been dispatched to investigate the Iraq uranium acquisition claims at the behest of his CIA operative wife. They hinted that this was just a case of nepotism on the part of Valerie Plame, when in fact nothing could have been further from the truth. Mr. Novak was sympathetic to these claims by his friends in the White House which is why he exposed Valerie Plame’s identity in an attempt to support the Bush Administration’s campaign to discredit former Ambassador Wilson.

One of the unfortunate side effects of the Libby trial was the special prosecutor’s success in compelling a number of reporters to reveal their confidential sources.

This could have a chilling effect on future journalists’ ability to obtain confidential information that the public has a need or a right to know, from government sources. Three reporters initially fought to defend their conversations with Mr. Libby and keep his identity secret, by both invoking their rights under the First Amendment and by pointing to the crucial role that confidential informers play in a free and democratic society. In the end their testimony proved to be crucial in convicting their one-time secret government source.

Furthermore, a long-time understanding in Washington DC politics that government leak investigations would only go so far in pressuring reporters to reveal their sources was smashed in this case. Mr. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Libby case has shown that this pact between the government and the press no longer carries much weight and can not be counted on to protect confidential government informers in future leak investigations.

Even though Bush Administration officials were clearly using the press for their own illegitimate reasons in this particular case, that is an acceptable trade-off as far as I am concerned in terms of the press and their right to protect confidential government sources. Society’s right to know what is going on in government is often dependent on the willingness of government insiders to reveal important and often classified information to reporters, with the assurance that they won’t have their identities exposed later.

A chilling consequence of the Libby case may be that government officials will become less willing to disclose vital information that the public has a right to know in the future. While I am glad that the devious inner workings of Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove and the Bush administration were exposed in this case, I am very worried about the cost that was paid to obtain Libby’s conviction in terms of continued diminution of First Amendment protections for the press and their informants.

I hope I’m wrong, but only time will tell if my concerns are indeed valid.

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