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On Point

The Dirty Work of the Beltway Clerks


by Austin Bay
November 1, 2005

Federal Judge Susan Weber Wright concluded Bill Clinton gave misleading testimony under oath. Clinton lost his law license and paid a fine. Clinton's legal case is closed, but the historical case is not quite shut. Wright did hang tough and force a sitting president to recognize he was not above the law.

Now, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has charged former Bush administration adviser Lewis "Scooter" Libby with perjury -- the "willful giving of false, misleading or incomplete testimony under oath."

Hamlet struggled with "to be or not to be." Clinton's decayed Hamlet jived and jinked over the meaning of "is," as if he had suddenly joined Alice in the word games of Wonderland.

We don't know if Libby will invoke Hamlet or Alice, or carve out new literary and legal territory. According to press reports, Libby will plead, "I forget" -- but in the Great Name Valerie Plame Game, the Washington press corps has earned no trust.

Clinton staffers pulled the memory-loss trick time and again in congressional testimony. In Libby's case, pleading brain fog may work and may possibly be true. He'll have his chance to convince a jury. Heaven knows he's a busy fellow. Perhaps his jam-packed Day-Timer will be introduced as evidence.

There is no doubt that former Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose trip to Niger before the Iraq war led to this case, is a truth-challenged blowhard. In the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, Plame's husband comes off as a decidedly minor character who misled and, at the minimum, exaggerated.

The committee grilled Wilson about his media-touted claim to know key Nigerian uranium documents were forged: "Staff asked how the former ambassador could have come to the conclusion that the 'dates were wrong and the names were wrong' when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports." The former ambassador said that he may have "misspoken" to the reporter." Historical bottom line: Wilson's claim to have "debunked" Saddam Hussein's quest for African uranium is specious.

Wilson's media blitz did more to expose his wife's CIA service than Libby's inside gossip, which gives the Plame Game a soap-opera twist.

But mud-wrestling with Wilson is not the charge against Libby, nor is violation of the Intelligence Identities Act. The big charge against Libby is false testimony during the investigation.

If Libby committed perjury, he did so out of arrogance. The most likely scenario is both this simple and desperately sad: Libby thought he could get away with it.

But then, so did Clinton. Clinton calculated he had presidential power, his media war room, his own bully pulpit. Libby had harnessed the power of Washington's shadow forces: wheeling and dealing with the K Street clan, handling political hatchets, leaking to reporters and kowtowing to the mighty -- or what those of us in flyover country consider the usual dirty day's work of a sharp Beltway clerk.

Clinton's disrespect for the law damaged the institution of the presidency. Libby remains innocent until proven guilty, but the institutional damage is obvious.

Clinton and Libby have another damaging connection: mega-felon Marc Rich. Clinton pardoned Rich hours before he left office -- accusations of a payoff linger. Libby represented Rich on and off for 15 years. Rich is a shady character who also knows how to work Washington's shadows.

Fortunately, for the health of America's governmental institutions, the Bush White House hasn't pulled a Clinton and trashed the prosecutor. By and large, the Bush administration has respected the judicial process.

A Clintonesque trash-the-prosecutor tactic probably wouldn't work, anyway, given the press's liberal bias. Clinton could rely on friends in the national press to amplify his tawdry demonization of Ken Starr. Bush administration attacks on Fitzgerald would backfire.

There is another upside. Covert intelligence work is difficult. Agents are vulnerable. Fitzgerald's hard-nosed investigation does indeed serve a national security role. In an era when human spies are America's first line of defense, Fitzgerald argues, "The notion that someone's identity could be compromised lightly, to me, compromises the ability to recruit."

Bully for the prosecutor. He's right.

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