Time magazine devotes a feature of more than 4,700 words to the dispute between George W. Bush and Dick Cheney over the former’s refusal to pardon Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the vice presidential aide convicted of obstructing an investigation into the leaking of a CIA officer’s identity.
The story supplies plenty of interesting details about Bush’s rebuff of his friend, who believed the president had abandoned a loyal soldier of the war on terror on the battlefield. The account makes it clear that White House legal counsel Fred Fielding was a staunch opponent of the pardon and that his views were enough to persuade Bush to hold off Cheney’s impassioned and persistent appeals.
The article rehearses at length the background of Libby’s case and repeats the oft-heard allegations that revealing Plame’s identity to Robert Novak was an attempt to silence critics of the war in Iraq. But nowhere does this long piece ever mention that it was not Libby who “outed” Plame as a CIA officer who had misused her influence to send her husband on a WMD-related intelligence mission in Iraq.
Though the lies about Cheney, Karl Rove, and Libby have attained the status of accepted facts, in the course of Libby’s trial, it was revealed that the real leaker was Richard Armitage, an aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell. The gossipy Armitage not only wasn’t a cheerleader for the war but, like his boss Powell, spent much of his time in office sniping at Cheney. Moreover, the allegation that Joe Wilson told the truth about WMDs while Cheney and Libby lied was also false. The decision of authors Massimo Calabresi and Michael Weisskopf to ignore the real context of the Libby case and pretend that the truth about the real leaker had never been found is a case of journalistic malpractice.
Scooter Libby’s prosecution was an absurd abuse of prosecutorial power. The entire Plame controversy was a successful attempt to criminalize policy differences in which a man who had devoted much of his adult life to public service was threatened with prison because in the course of interrogations of various media figures, one was found who had a different recollection of a single conversation. Bush’s decision to commute Libby’s sentence was a proper use of presidential power because it prevented a miscarriage of justice. But it didn’t go far enough. A full pardon was called for in this case.
Unfortunately, Bush was more concerned about being accused by his critics — who routinely defamed him no matter what he did — of covering up a crime that never happened than in doing right by Libby. Time’s story on the episode shows how the “Bush lied” school on Iraq is still more than willing to keep alive the myths about the war. Though I’m sure history will treat Bush’s presidency with more kindness than his contemporary critics have, his failure to pardon Libby was a dishonorable last chapter to the Bush White House story.