November 16, 2005

Libby and The White House Omerta

Political commentators of every kind agree that silence and secrecy are two hallmarks of the Bush administration. I like to think of it as a kind of omerta, defined as a rule or code that prohibits speaking or divulging information about certain activities, especially the activities of a criminal organization. So far, this administration, per se, has not been convicted as a criminal organization, although some of its members, current and former, have been indicted, and many Americans regard its behavior as criminal. Nevertheless, give it time.

I finally had the time to read the actual Libby indictment issued by Patrick Fitzgerald against Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and I was amazed at how easy it must have been for the grand jury to be convinced that Libby was lying. Reading between the lines, it also seems clear to me that Libby was lying to protect at least one person who was higher up, someone like Vice President Cheney himself.

On page 18 of the indictment, here are Libby's own words in describing how he says he learned about Valerie Plame (Wilson) from reporter Tim Russert:

. . . . And then he (Russert) said, you know, did you know that this – excuse me, did you know that Ambassador Wilson's wife works at the CIA? And I was a little taken aback by that. I remember being taken aback by it. And I said – he may have said a little more but that was – he said that. And I said, no, I don't know that. And I said, no, I don't know that intentionally because I didn't want him to take anything I was saying as in any way confirming what he said, because at that point in time I did not recall that I had ever known, and I thought this is something that he was telling me that I was first learning. And so I said, no, I don't know that because I want to be very careful not to confirm it for him, so that he didn't take my statement as confirmation for him.
Now, I had said earlier in the conversation, which I omitted to tell you, that
this – you know, as always, Tim, our discussion is off-the-record if that's okay with
you, and he said, that's fine.
So then he said – I said – he said, sorry – he, Mr. Russert said to me, did you know that Ambassador Wilson's wife, or his wife, works at the CIA? And I said, no, I don't know that. And then he said, yeah – yes, all the reporters know it. And I said, again, I don't know that. I just wanted to be clear that I wasn't confirming anything for him on this. And you know, I was struck by what he was saying in that he thought it was an important fact, but I didn't ask him anymore about it because I didn't want to be digging in on him, and he then moved on and finished the conversation, something like that.

He was throwing pixie dust in their faces, and the investigators knew it. Can you imagine Libby being "taken aback" by learning from Russert that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA? In reality, he would have been very curious, if not actually salivating.

In other testimony regarding his conversation with Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, quoted on page 20, Libby responds this way to questions:

Q. And it's your specific recollection that when you told Cooper about Wilson's wife working at the CIA, you attributed that fact to what reporters –
A. Yes.
Q. – plural, were saying. Correct?
A. I was very clear to say reporters are telling us that because in my mind I still didn't know it as a fact. I thought I was – all I had was this information that was coming in from the reporters.
. . . .
Q. And at the same time you have a specific recollection of telling him, you don't know whether it's true or not, you're just telling him what reporters are saying?
A. Yes, that's correct, sir. And I said, reporters are telling us that, I don't
know if it's true. I was careful about that because among other things, I wanted to be clear I didn't know Mr. Wilson. I don't know – I think I said, I don't know if he has a wife, but this is what we're hearing.

What strikes me is how artless and amateurish he seems, how utterly unprepared and scattered his testimony comes across. It's as if he has concluded that the way to coverup and camouflage the truth is to appear hazy and simple-minded about it all saying things like "something like that" and "I think I said" and "all I had was this information coming in from reporters."

In what I believe was almost a slip of the tongue on Libby's part, here is another of his responses on page 21 to questions:

Q. And let me ask you this directly. Did the fact that you knew that the law could turn, the law as to whether a crime was committed, could turn on where you learned the information from, affect your account for the FBI when you told them that you were telling reporters Wilson's wife worked at the CIA but your source was a reporter rather than the Vice-President?
A. No, it's a fact. It was a fact, that's what I told the reporters.
Q. And you're, you're certain as you sit here today that every reporter you told that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, you sourced it back to other reporters?
A. Yes, sir, because it was important for what I was saying and because it was – that's what – that's how I did it.

Why was it so important to him, as he says, that he sourced all his knowledge back to reporters? And in so doing, tell what was a patent lie? In his second answer, he says "it was important for what I was saying and because it was -- that's what -- that's how I did it" which to me is almost like saying "it was important for me to say it was the reporters who told me so you guys don't find out who really told me."

The indictment quotes more:

Q. The next set of questions from the Grand Jury are – concern this fact. If you did not understand the information about Wilson's wife to have been classified and didn't understand it when you heard it from Mr. Russert, why was it that you were so deliberate to make sure that you told other reporters that reporters were saying it and not assert it as something you knew?

A. I want – I didn't want to – I didn't know if it was true and I didn't want people – I didn't want the reporters to think it was true because I said it. I – all I had was that reporters are telling us that, and by that I wanted them to understand it wasn't coming from me and that it might not be true. Reporters write things that aren't true sometimes, or get things that aren't true. So I wanted to be clear they didn't, they didn't think it was me saying it. I didn't know it was true and I wanted them to understand that. Also, it was important to me to let them know that because what I was telling them was that I don't know Mr. Wilson. We didn't ask for his mission. That I didn't see his report.

Basically, we didn't know anything about him until this stuff came out in June. And among the other things, I didn't know he had a wife. That was one of the things I said to Mr. Cooper. I don't know if he's married. And so I wanted to be very clear about all this stuff that I didn't, I didn't know about him. And the only thing I had, I thought at the time, was what reporters are telling us. . . . . Well, talking to the other reporters about it, I don't see as a crime. What I said to the other reporters is what, you know – I told a couple reporters what other reporters had told us, and I don't see that as a crime.

Truly remarkable stuff. If Libby was being told by reporters like C ooper about Wilson's wife, why would he feel the need to say things like "I didn't know he had a wife," as if his having a wife was something unusual. Why would he feel compelled to tell the prosecutors and the grand jury that talking to reporters about things he learned from reporters was not a crime, in his eyes. I just told reporters what other reporters told me, "and I don't see that as a crime." Why is he so worried about whether he commited a crime?

I believe Libby is scared to death. I believe it is quite possible that Libby is so way over his head with this that he will crack and deliver the truth to Fitzpatrick. I am not certain that these people are the committed self-sacrificial ideologues that we fear. Like omerta, within the Cosa Nostra, it only works if everyone keeps their mouths shut. And we know that plenty of mobsters never kept their mouths shut. And if Libby opens up, don't be surprised if Vice President Cheney's health suddenly worsens and he is forced to resign. And if the Democrats take back the Senate next year, all bets are off.

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