Apologists for Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted in March of perjury and obstruction of justice, are relying on two lines of argument: that Libby was the Bush administration’s “fall guy,” and that Libby’s problem was his faulty memory—the “busy-man defense.”
It is true that Libby was only one of several administration officials who “leaked” CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity to the news media. The White House and the Office of the Vice President (OVP) leaked—actually, planted—her name and CIA affiliation well before former ambassador Joseph Wilson published his July 6, 2003, op-ed article, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.”
Hiding behind the manufactured excuse that Wilson was insisting that “Cheney sent him” to Niger, White House staffers “corrected” several media figures, rapid-fire, by insisting that Wilson had been “sent” to Niger by his CIA wife to check out the purported Iraq-uranium deal.
Testimony and trial documents corroborate that, from June 13 to July 12, 2003, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage passed this information to Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward and to columnist Robert Novak; Libby gave it to departing White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who also heard it from White House staffer Dan Bartlett and, in turn, gave it to two other reporters, including NBC’s David Gregory, who did not publish it. Libby also leaked it (exclusively) to New York Times reporter Judith Miller; and White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove passed it to Time reporter Matthew Cooper and confirmed it for Novak—who published it in his column of July 14, 2003. Other press contacts included Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, and CNBC’s Chris Matthews—who told Wilson that Rove had called Mrs. Wilson “fair game.” Overall, the White House-OVP action was so concerted that, even in hindsight, it is difficult to determine who fired the first shot or the fatal bullet.
Tense colloquies about the Wilsons and the Niger trip seem to have begun in late May 2003, when Libby asked Marc Grossman, an undersecretary in the State Department, about the Niger trip. The CIA faxed classified documents to the OVP on June 9, mentioning the trip without naming Wilson. The next day, a classified State Department memo named Valerie Wilson as Joseph Wilson’s wife and “a CIA WMD manager” who was also debunking the Niger uranium story. The next day, Libby called longtime CIA official Robert L. Grenier, who told him that Mrs. Wilson was, indeed, in the CIA. The next day—June 12, 2003—Vice President Cheney also told Libby, in a phone call, about Mrs. Wilson.
The following day, June 13, Armitage told Woodward about Mrs. Wilson, using expletives, and, ten days later, Libby mentioned Mrs. Wilson’s CIA employment to Judith Miller.
Did the Bush administration simply launch a preemptive strike against Joe Wilson, or did it also move to disrupt analysis in the CIA WMD counterproliferation unit? Either way, the White House moved fast: By the time Wilson’s column appeared, his wife’s name and CIA connection had already been leaked to Woodward and Miller for 23 and 13 days, respectively. (Incidentally, Armitage, a colleague of Cheney since the “Team B” days, was a signatory of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, which had, since its founding in 1997, placed Iraq at the top of its hit list.)
That the Bush-administration officials may have made Libby their “fall guy” does not mitigate Libby’s guilt. You don’t get out of a ticket just because other drivers around you were speeding, too. And, since no one is suggesting that Libby planted information on his own (as a sort of “G. Gordon Libby”), wouldn’t it benefit this country if those “fall guy” apologists would pressure the men who gave Libby his orders to come clean?
Certainly, Libby was in over his head. So were Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, and everyone else who was presuming to rearrange the Middle East. How could these individuals presume to invade and remake a country—actually, wreck and destroy it—without even admitting what they were doing? Yet Libby’s position was unique. As Woodward wrote in his book Plan of Attack, Libby’s “three formal titles”—chief of staff for Cheney; national-security advisor to Cheney; and assistant to Bush—made up “a trifecta of positions probably never before held by a single person.” That someone engaged in sensitive strategy discussions for invading Iraq also served, in essence, as a Bush speechwriter may be an historical oddity. That, given his long list of duties, too much would land on his plate, making him a very busy man and pushing his memory to its limits, was inevitable.
The commentators who blame Libby’s faulty memory are doing what Libby could have done for himself, had he taken the witness stand. Since he did not, and since only the defendant can speak to his own state of mind, his lawyers were not supposed to be allowed to use the “memory defense.” (They still managed to get it into the record, however, as I witnessed at the trial.)
Memory is inherently variable and fallible; that is why senior government officials have ample support staff at their beck and call to help with notes, records, and communications. If apologists for the limitations of memory truly want to help their country, they should call for improved federal standards in rigorous and impeccable record keeping.