In defense of the First Amendment, free Scooter Libby!
By Guy Farmer
The Washington, D.C. federal court trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former high-powered chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is a classic Inside-the-Beltway political story that has little to do with real life in the rest of the nation Ð “Flyover Country,” in the parlance of Washington insiders.
Right here in Carson City, we’re about to be visited by a gaggle of Democratic presidential hopefuls, who will learn that Nevada is different. When these candidates take the stage at the Community Center on Wednesday to extol their alleged presidential virtues, let’s put them on the record about the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump and the Bureau of Land Management’s shaky stewardship of the vast public lands that make up more than 85 percent of our fast-growing state.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the Scooter Libby trial, which is a lesson in how journalists and politicians manipulate each other in Our Nation’s Capital. It’s a story about the incestuous relationship between power-seeking journalists and politicians, and I can’t for the life of me understand how this particular political soap opera wound up in a federal courtroom.
It all started in mid-2003 when the Bush administration was struggling to overcome growing evidence that our dubious military mission in Iraq was anything but accomplished. Early that year President Bush had decided to invade Iraq because of the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. But when no such weapons were found, Bush’s rationale fell apart and Americans eventually turned against the war.
The ongoing Libby trial has revealed that Vice President Cheney mounted a sub-rosa PR campaign to debunk a former diplomat’s damaging assertion that President Bush misled the American people, Congress and our allies by going to war based on intelligence information that he knew to be false. Unbeknownst to the White House, the CIA sent retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Africa to investigate a British report that Saddam was attempting to buy weapons-grade uranium from Niger. Wilson, the husband of CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame, found no evidence to support such a claim.
Reveling in the spotlight, the photogenic ambassador joined John Kerry’s presidential campaign as a foreign affairs adviser and wrote a book touting his Africa expertise and decrying Bush’s lack of knowledge about Africa and the world in general. Simultaneously, Wilson and his lovely blonde wife posed for a series of glamour photos for Vanity Fair magazine. Which only goes to show that some retired diplomats have more fun than others; my only public photo is a mug shot in the Appeal.
Along the way, someone identified Ms. Plame-Wilson as a covert CIA agent, which is a federal crime, and all hell broke loose inside the Beltway. Washington overflowed with ringing declarations in favor of press freedom and the public’s right to know, while Middle America yawned and watched American Idol. After a lengthy and very expensive investigation of the leak that “outed” Ms. Plame-Wilson, the unfortunate Scooter Libby was indicted for lying to a federal grand jury about his role in the murky affair. In other words, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald labored mightily before giving birth to a tiny mouse, and then he subpoenaed a number of big name journalists – including three Pulitzer prize-winners – to testify for the prosecution.
The Libby trial has been a he-said, she-said charade so far with famous witnesses contradicting each other and claiming faulty memories as if a massive wave of amnesia had swept down the Potomac River. Apparently, Libby told the grand jury he first learned of Plame-Wilson’s CIA connection from Cheney, but later said he may have heard it from NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, who denied that claim during the trial. Both sides rested last Wednesday and the case will go to the jury at mid-week.
Strangely enough the journalist who broke the story, veteran columnist Robert Novak, wasn’t called as a witness. After stonewalling for months, Novak identified his source as former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, thereby disappointing everyone who hoped it was their favorite suspect: White House political mastermind Karl Rove.
I have the same question about Libby’s faulty memory that I had about Dawn Gibbons’ expensive inaugural gown: So what? Libby’s defense to these trumped-up (in my opinion) charges is that he’s merely the latest designated scapegoat in a decades-old Washington Blame Game played by everyone in that political town. Journalists need politicians, and vice versa, so everyone leaks like a sieve. It’s an incestuous relationship, as it was when I covered Nevada politics for the Associated Press in the 1960s.
Writing in Time magazine, liberal columnist Michael Kinsley got it just about right when he wrote that “there is no holier icon in the Church of the First Amendment than the anonymous leak.” He added that journalists “have delivered sermon after sermon about the centrality of leaks, not just to journalism but to democracy itself.” But if leaks are vital to the concept of press freedom, he argued, “then surely both of the people needed to create a leak – the reporter and the source – deserve protection.” So I hereby echo Kinsley’s battle cry in defense of our First Amendment freedoms: Free Scooter Libby!
• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.