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Scooter’s Plea 

The case looks strong — and dangerous for the White House

Thursday, Nov 3 2005
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I'm not a lawyer — I don’t even play one on television. But after reading the 22-page indictment that Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury handed up against Scooter Libby last Friday, I have one piece of advice for the Scootster: Cop a plea.Fitzgerald’s indictment was clearly crafted with one goal ever paramount: securing an easy conviction. He did not charge Libby with violating espionage acts — that would require proof of Libby’s intent or of Libby’s certitude that Valerie Plame was a covert operative. He did charge Libby with lying repeatedly to FBI agents and the grand jury about the conversations he had with three reporters, and about when and how he discovered Plame’s status. And it looks pretty clear that Fitzgerald can make those charges stick.Libby’s problem isn’t just that Tim Russert, Matt Cooper and Judy Miller will contradict the account he gave the feds of his conversations with them. It’s that seven administration officials have already provided evidence to Fitzgerald that Libby knew about Plame before his conversation with Russert, in which he told the feds that he learned for the first time that Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA (an account that Russert says was a fabrication: Libby called to rage at MSNBC, but Russert had never heard of Valerie Plame). The indictment makes clear that Libby was at the center of White House efforts to discredit former ambassador Joe Wilson for pointing out that the administration knew some of the claims it made about Iraq’s attempts to acquire nuclear materials were false. But where it actually trips Libby up is in its documentation of the conversations he had with administration officials about Plame, Wilson’s wife, before his conversation with Russert.Libby talked to Russert “on or about July 10, 2003,” the indictment reads. But, it continues, “at the time of this conversation, Libby was well aware that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA; in fact, Libby had participated in multiple prior conversations concerning this topic . . .” These conversations, it says, included one in early June in which Dick Cheney told him that Plame worked in the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division; one on or around June 11 in which a “senior CIA officer” told him that Plame was employed by the agency; one on or around June 12 in which the same information was conveyed to him by Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman; one on July 7, in which Libby told then–White House press secretary Ari Fleischer over lunch that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA (this was one day after Wilson’s op-ed recounting the findings of his Niger trip ran in TheNew York Times); one on July 8, in which Libby asked David Addington, counsel to the vice president, what CIA paperwork there would be that would document a spouse’s trip; and another conversation no later than July 8 in which Catherine Martin, Cheney’s press secretary, told Libby that she’d learned from another administration official that Plame was a CIA employee. So forget about Russert’s testimony. Even forget about Miller’s; she has already told Fitzgerald that Libby told her about Plame on June 23 — more than two weeks before he claims he learned from Russert about Plame. Libby’s most serious problem is that each of the above administration officials either has already provided testimony that contradicts Libby’s story, or that Fitzgerald is in possession of other evidence, such as e-mails, documenting their discussions with Libby. Or both. Let’s try, then, to envision Lewis Libby’s trial. Cooper and Miller and Russert will swear that the characterizations of their discussions with Libby that he gave to the feds were sheer fabrications. But then will come a parade of Libby’s onetime colleagues to attest that he knew about, and sure looked to be working on, Valerie Plame before his phone call with Russert. What are Libby’s lawyers supposed to do? Impeach half his co-workers in Cheney’s office, not to mention Fleischer, Grossman and some folks at the CIA?And then there’s a delicate question of Cheney himself, from whom, the indictment states, Libby first learned of Plame’s employment. One has to assume that Fitzgerald did not drag Cheney into the indictment lightly, that he would not have made that assertion absent credible testimony and/or documentation. It’s been reported, in fact, that Libby’s lawyer tried to cut a deal with Fitzgerald even before the indictment was handed up, but that Fitzgerald insisted on Libby’s serving more time than Libby was willing to do. Scooter, after all, is an accomplished lawyer, and he obviously can see that this will be a very hard rap to beat. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, did a first-rate job of making himself all but unassailable in his Friday press conference. He came off as a super-straight Irish street cop. And he rigorously avoided any of the larger political issues that the case raises, with one very clear exception. The case, he said, was really about national security. “At a time when we need more human intelligence,” he said, “just the notion that someone’s identity could be compromised lightly . . . compromises our ability to recruit” new agents. Americans who go to work for our intelligence agencies, he continued, “need to know that we will not cast aside their anonymity lightly.”That would make a very nice closing statement if the proceedings against Libby advance that far. You have to believe there are those in the White House who hope Libby has the good sense to go to the slammer before Fitzgerald can talk more sense to the American people.

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