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The British take the Libby case seriously

COMMENTARY | March 12, 2007

The overseas press: Much of the world pays little attention but in London a part of the story, the phony yellowcake intelligence, hits close to home.

By John Burke

Most of the world’s press didn’t nit-pick the details or analyze to any great extent the trial of Scooter Libby. News of the guilty verdict was mentioned, usually implicating the Vice President under simple headlines, such as the French Le Monde’s “Ex-advisor to Cheney judged guilty” or a bit more provocative like the Spanish El Pais’ title, “Cheney against the ropes.”

The majority of the world’s press didn’t dig further, discussing the possible implications of alleged lies that have thrown the Middle East into increased turmoil. But then there’s the British.

Newspaper readers in the country most tied to America since that fateful day in September 2001 read both sides of the story; the conspiracy theorists as well as those dismissing the trial as a case of perjury that shouldn’t even have been brought to court. Editorialists pondered the potential consequences for the Bush administration if Libby begins to talk and linked the trial to further sullying the image of compassionate conservatives’ assertive foreign policy.

Perhaps the difference in levels of interest in the British press and the rest of the world is that the document on which the infamous 16-word “Saddam is seeking weapons of mass destruction” State of the Union 2003 phrase was said to be based on British intelligence. The Blair government, once decidedly popular within Britain, thus became implicated, leading to its decidedly unpopular decision to back Bush in Iraq:

The Guardian’s leader, ‘Lies about crimes,’ gets right to the point, explaining to foreigners why the case should matter to them, because behind the seemingly innocuous Libby fibs lies a cover-up of enormous proportions:

“Even most Americans probably gave up trying to follow the threads of the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby long ago. So it is asking a lot to expect non-Americans to grasp the full significance of the former White House official's conviction on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. After all, the leak to the press of the name of a CIA agent who played a cameo role in the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction debacle in 2002 was itself a recondite enough affair…

“The eventual trial may have fascinated the Washington Beltway crowd, to whom Mr Libby, the former CIA analyst Valerie Plame, and her husband Ambassador Joseph Wilson are seasoned and familiar figures. But why should outsiders have to take it seriously too?

“For two main reasons. The first concerns the ethics of the administration of which Mr Libby, as top aide to Dick Cheney, was such a senior member. George Bush came to the White House in January 2001 pledging to ‘change the atmosphere in Washington DC’. By this he apparently meant two things: one, that he would govern in a dignified and rule-respecting way that supposedly contrasted with that of Bill Clinton; and, two, that he would try to end the intense partisan bitterness that had marked the Washington of the Clinton era. The Libby case is prosecution exhibit number one in support of the charge that Mr Bush never attempted to do any such thing. On the contrary, the Bush administration has been ruthlessly partisan, fuelled by enmities worthy of the Nixon era.

“The second reason is because, at bottom, Mr Libby's lies concerned Iraq. The administration wanted to invade Iraq. Mr Cheney, and through him Mr Libby, was not particular about how to do it. When Mr Wilson publicly questioned the weapons of mass destruction case for war he therefore made himself a Cheney enemy. As a consequence, the White House took its revenge on him through his wife. Mr Libby lied to protect not just his boss but his boss's unjust war. That's why yesterday's verdict matters. This affair is not over yet - not by a long chalk.”

Contradicting the Guardian column, a leader in the conservative Times of London decides that Libby is a liar, but the conspiracy ends there, dismissing all suspicions that the trial goes deeper into the White House’s pre-war manipulation of evidence:

“To the Bush Administration’s many detractors, the Scooter Libby trial was always about more than whether the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney lied under oath about a conversation he had with a reporter…

“And so, by this succession of leaps of logic, the guilty verdict convicts the Bush Administration, the war, Tony Blair, and everyone else who ever set foot in the White House in the year before the war…

“Unfortunately, even as the word ‘impeachment’ starts to form itself on excited Democratic lips, it is evident that the hysteria is not supported by the facts…

“Mr Libby was never tried for deliberately trying to out the identity of the CIA operative, Valerie Plame, for the very good reasons, as prosecutors well knew, that

1 He didn’t do it; and

2 Even if he had it would not have been a criminal offence…

“He never faced prosecution because the prosecutors determined that it was not a crime to leak the name. So there goes the argument that Cheney-Libby would stop at nothing – including lawbreaking – to discredit critics of their case, because they somehow knew that all along they were misleading the public about the case for war.

“What Mr Libby did was not to use the powerful weapons of government at his disposal to destroy Mr Cheney’s critics, but to try to avoid telling the truth about conversations he had with reporters about Ms Plame.

“This was a foolish – and now we know, criminal – thing to do. But it speaks more to the obsessive secrecy in which Mr Cheney’s office is wont to function than to any grand conspiracy to distort information about the case for the war against Iraq.

“Mr Fitzgerald may have started out in his own mind as a modern Eliot Ness. But all he ended up with was Mr Libby's untruth about a non-crime – an offence for sure, but, in terms of what he had hoped to uncover, the political equivalent of a moving traffic violation.

“Mr Libby is the guilty perpetrator of a small lie but the innocent victim of a much larger character and political assassination by a prosecutor and a press that never came close to making a real legal case out of what remains no more than a conspiracy theory.”

In Unanswered Questions, The Independent argues in favor of the Libby verdict but regrets that the case didn’t shed more light on the White House wheelings and dealings in the run up to the war. The British daily hopes that Libby will speak up and throw the door wide open on pre-war manipulated intelligence:

“The conviction of Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, once Vice-President Dick Cheney's closest aide and confidant, is fresh proof of the old adage about Washington scandals: it's not the crime that matters, but the cover-up. In this convoluted affair, which stemmed from a special investigation into whether someone in the Bush administration deliberately leaked the identity of a CIA agent, there was not even a crime to cover up.

“Indeed, a strong case can be made that the prosecution should never have been brought. Certainly, too, the seven-week trial has shed no new light on the infinitely graver matter for which it was a proxy - the manipulation of intelligence by the President and Mr Cheney to sell their disastrous war in Iraq…

“Yet the verdict shows that it was correct to take the case to court…(Perjury, which could lead to the “break down” of the entire judicial system), is Mr. Libby's substantial offence, for which he has been rightly punished.

“Yet questions linger - foremost among them, why did he lie if there was no crime to conceal in the first place?

“‘Where was [top Bush adviser Karl] Rove?’ the same juror wondered. ‘Where are the other guys?’ These questions deserve an answer.

“The super-secretive Vice-President will never address these issues himself. Which leaves Mr Libby. By coming clean even at this late stage, he could save himself a jail sentence - unless, of course, Mr Bush completes the cover-up by issuing a presidential pardon.”

Another article in the Independent shows how British Premier Tony “Blair has stood by (the) Niger Claim,” referring to the original document, later proven to be phony, that was the “Bushies” primary evidence for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. For the paper, it doesn’t seem that Blair will ever be held accountable for the grave mistake:

“The now notorious Niger claim first surfaced in Britain, where the Blair government circulated the September 2002 dossier warning of the threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction…

“However, despite the CIA's reservations over the central claim that Saddam was allegedly attempting to buy yellowcake from Africa for his nuclear weapons programme, and the White House having formally backed away from the report, the British Government still clings to its original position…

“In Britain, the claim was investigated as part of Lord Butler of Brockwell's 2004 review of the use of intelligence in the approach to the war. He accepted that the Government had its own, separate, intelligence for making the claim about Niger which he said was ‘not undermined’ by the fact of the forgery.

“Lord Butler also revealed the accusations against Iraq concerned not only Niger, but the war-ravaged, mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo.

“He concluded: ‘On the basis of the intelligence assessments at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government's dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded.’

“The Government has refused all requests from opposition MPs since that time to reveal the intelligence on which the assessment was based. And with Tony Blair poised to leave office, it is unlikely to be made public until his successor decides whether to hold an independent inquiry into the mistakes made in Iraq.”

Printed one day before the Libby verdict, The Times realized that “Dead-eye Dick loses grip in wind of change,” writing about Cheney’s waning influence in the administration now in favor of more “pragmatic” White House appointees. What’s still not sure, however, is how his relationship with Bush has changed, nor how much a guilty Libby will further affect it:

“Nobody truly knows what goes on between the vice-president and president of the United States. That’s how they like it, after all. They have a weekly lunch session alone, with no aides and no notes taken.

“It’s the ultimate power lunch. They never publicly disagree. The only time they did — over the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages and civil unions — Cheney got a pass because his daughter is a lesbian, now expecting a child. But the lack of public disagreement has not prevented Washington from constant chatter about the real state of affairs. And the evidence we’re getting is that Cheney is far from the influence he once was…

“What was noteworthy was not just the switch to greater pragmatism in Washington, but the way in which such pragmatism happened. It was secretary of state Condi Rice who saw the chance for a deal and in a call to the president got authorisation to press ahead. Cheney was out of the loop.

“In Iraq, the Cheney line is still that the entire war has been a succession of what he calls ‘enormous successes’. But that is not how the president has described it in recent, far more realistic speeches. And Rice again has achieved a diplomatic advance. Soon, for the first time, the United States will be in a negotiating room discussing Iraq with a representative of the Iranian government…

“The increasing desperation of the Americans is one factor (for why the meeting will be held). Widening cracks in Iran’s leadership is another. But the waning influence of Cheney is not to be underestimated.

“So not only has Cheney lost Rumsfeld and Libby, and lost the argument temporarily over Iraq, Iran and North Korea, he lives under the cloud of the special prosecutor Fitzgerald… If Libby is convicted, he could possibly tell Fitzgerald some more. Even if no crime emerges, Cheney’s reputation for ‘the dark side’ of domestic politics will not increase his stature in a White House trying to achieve a kinder, smarter legacy than it has recently garnered.

“And yet, the old Cheney endures (citing his visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan)...

“Cheney, moreover, is not done with Iran. It’s hard to know what to make of Seymour Hersh’s latest report in The New Yorker on alleged US plans to bomb that country. But nobody doubts that Cheney is the force behind such a contingency.

“Back in 2002, he might well have made a decision of this gravity, and Bush might well have gone along. But now: not so much. Congress is against it, the military brass is against it, the State Department is against it, the American public is against it, and Cheney has no Rummy or Libby to guard his back.

“But he still has the president. At least we think he does. But only two people really know the answer to that. And they’re not telling anyone.”

In Conservatives can’t be picky: the bandwagon’s rolling, The Times, compares America’s Republicans with the UK’s Conservative Party, citing the Libby verdict and conditions at Walter Reed as the latest embarrassments to the Bush brand of conservatism and a bungled war as the end of an “assertive foreign policy” idealism:

“To the casual observer, American and British politics appear to be on sharply divergent tracks. In the US, the party that represents the conservative interest, the Republicans, is in a state of historic collapse that makes the fall of the Roman Empire look like a narrow by-election defeat for the emperor in Parthia Northwest.

“This week new woes were piled upon their miseries. It was revealed that awful conditions at the main military hospital for wounded soldiers returning from Iraq seem to have been tolerated with the sort of blasé disregard for others’ welfare that Donald Rumsfeld elevated into a governing philosophy.

“Unlike Rummy in such circumstances, his successor Robert Gates ensured that heads rolled. But that has failed to shake the impression that once again the Bush Administration matches a lofty rhetoric about its global mission with a cruel insouciance for the poor souls who suffer its consequences.

“Then Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s Cardinal Richelieu, was convicted by a federal court of perjury and obstruction of justice. To pardon or not to pardon is the thorny question that confronts President Bush. Given the man’s near perfectly wrong performance on recent binary political choices, you’d be a fool to bet he’ll make the right one…

“So what we still call Left and Right are surely on different trajectories across the Atlantic. And yet inside the parties in both countries there are striking parallels. Both Democrats and Labour have serious leadership issues. Hillary Clinton and Gordon Brown both see themselves not just as the leading candidate but as the divinely ordained inheritor of the crown. Both have been the designated successors of their party for years, but both inspire dislike and despair among the party’s supporters who think — probably correctly — that the broader electorate is immune to their appeal. They are both quintessential top-down candidates, using similarly intimidatory tactics to lock up supporters and ward off potential rivals but failing to engender any warmth.

“The closer their coronations come, the more treasonous their subjects feel. Growing numbers of Democrats and Labour people would love to be able to break free of the Hillary and Gordon trap. That is more likely to happen among the Democrats who have more time than does Labour…

“On the Right too there are similarities in the US and the UK. In both Britain and America there is a gathering sense of despair among true conservatives about the condition of their party’s politics…

“In America, where conservative disillusionment is a more recent but no less palpable emotion, the three front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination are all, in a sense, Cameroonian (David Cameron, leading Conservative Party candidate for Prime Minister) in their frailty. With no obvious conservative candidate in the field, the contest between Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney is coming down for many conservatives to a choice of whom you hate least.

“Currently, Mr Giuliani leads this Dutch auction. This has given rise to one of the more remarkable spectacles in politics — that of the libertine New Yorker Mr Giuliani feeling the love of Southern conservative Christians despite his record, views and predilections. Watching them embrace Mr Giuliani is like watching survivors from a shipwreck clinging to a giant turd in the water. It’s no one’s first choice of support from the briny waves but if you hold your nose it’s still better than any of the alternatives.

“And yet conservatives, in their different ways, on both sides of the Atlantic, have no right to be picky. Iraq has discredited the very idea of an assertive foreign policy, globalisation’s malcontents are crying loudly for government help and years of ugly intolerance on the Right have turned off millions of decent voters.

“In Britain Thatcherism is not in favour and in America Reaganism is not on offer. But that doesn’t mean reformist conservative candidates are inferior to their socialist and liberal opponents. In a hostile political environment a scaled-down conservatism is still better than no conservatism at all. The current generation of Republican and Conservative leaders recognise this and are working to renew conservatism rather than destroy it.

The right thing to do is not to make faces at this bandwagon but to jump aboard and keep trying to drive it in the right direction of freer markets, freer people. If they hang together in this struggle, conservatives have a good chance of advancing their cause as a governing strategy, not as an angry protest. It they do not, they will, most assuredly, hang separately.”

A satirical article in The Guardian about American pop culture and a movie in the works about the Plamegate thriller, calls the spy behind the trial ‘No Dumb Blonde;’ “Anna Nicole, Britney, Anne Coulter ... America's dumb blondes have become a weapon of mass distraction - but thank God for Valerie Plame”:

“Thank heavens for Valerie Plame: she has just redeemed the stained and sullied collective reputation of the All-American Blonde.

“Well, OK, she's done a lot more than that. The guilty verdict in the Scooter Libby case - which featured Plame as its nearly invisible Rosebud-cum-Maguffin catalyst figure - lights a gunpowder trail that will sooner or later obliterate Dick Cheney. And that's reason enough to erect a statue or three.

“And certainly reason enough for Warner Bros to consider green-lighting their long-simmering Plamegate project, which gets a boost now Plame and her husband, ambassador Joe Wilson, have been vindicated in court (now comes their civil suit, and I fancy they will not be squeamish about spit-roasting Cheney on the stand). Warner's project is rife with security-state ironies, since it's based on a memoir named Fair Game that the CIA hasn't yet permitted Plame to publish. It would be interesting to see the agency try to scupper a book whose narrative strands have been strewn across the media for almost four years now…

“But back to the blondes who, until Plame saved their reputation this week, seemed to have entered into some gruesome conspiracy to distract America from more important things by turning the news broadcasts into a neverending, daily bimbo inferno.

“First there was Anna Nicole Smith, of whom we've heard far too much of late, except for this one fact that everyone missed: her death contrived to knock the single most important study ever published on global warming - the last nail in the doubters' coffin - off the front page…

“And when Anna Nicole's corpse wasn't exerting its dread mantis hold on the pundits, Britney ("I think we should all just back the president!") Spears, suffering one of her frequent and debilitating celebrity paroxysms, took up the slack, drawing maximum attention to her blondeness by the simple expedient of hacking off every last strand of it in full public view…

“With Smith safely in the ground, the ghoulish rightwing blonde pundit Anne Coulter then piped up and publicly slurred Senator John Edwards with the gay equivalent of the N-word - and the blonde-fixated media flipped out all over again. Can we get no relief?

“No, Plame proves it takes only one smart blonde to trump a troupe of dumb ones. With no celebrity of her own to exploit - quite the contrary - Plame painted her face and worked by night, lit the blue touchpaper and stood well back. Now we await the fireworks, with just one question: which crazy Hollywood blonde plays her in the movie?”

And in Canada, a sense of having been deceived       

The Toronto Star  writes that Libby’s and the Bush administration’s “Tale of deception has lessons for Canada.” Not only is it one of the reasons why Canada has sent troops to Afghanistan, but the column ravages the Washington press corps for not living up to its democratic duty, fearing that the same thing is happening to its Canadian counterpart:

It's not really surprising that there are warnings for Canada woven through the Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby cautionary tale about lies and deception. After all, in a world where everything is said to connect, politicians and journalists up here can surely learn a few things from what's happening down there.

“Libby's conviction this week for perjury and obstructing justice adds some credibility to the controversial chaos theory that a butterfly's wing beating in Asia may stir an earthquake in, say, South America. In much the same way, the Libby case connects serendipitously to Canada's Afghanistan mission, the wild acceleration of political spin, and relations between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the media.

“All three come together in Libby's fib about the big lie…

“That tall tale was part of the fictional weapons of mass destruction story that justified the Iraq invasion that in turn distracted U.S. attention from Afghanistan. That led Canada to help fill the Afghanistan vacuum, at least partly to ease relations with Washington strained by Ottawa's refusal to help topple Saddam Hussein…

“In the U.S., a war was justified by spin that began with a few selective facts and then spiralled into fiction. In Canada, the Afghanistan mission is still sold as security and reconstruction and not as a gesture of support for the U.S., first by Liberals and then Conservatives.

“None of that is accidental. Last fall, Harper's government spent $76,000 testing compelling words to market a distant conflict and the language judged best was the least American.

“Governments everywhere practise the persuasive arts and what's wrong with that can be made right by a scrupulous media fulfilling their democratic obligations. That didn't happen in the U.S. and there's evidence of similar Canadian failures.

“In Washington, one of the world's most accomplished press corps proved poorly matched against a pair of powerful forces. The incessant beat of war drums made tough questions seem traitorous while obsessive information control exercised by the White House made journalists vulnerable to strategic leaks from high places.

“In hot pursuit of the scoop, seasoned reporters were suckered into advancing administration interests by misleading citizens. That fourth estate failure is made worse by the life-and-death nature of the issue and by the gnawing truth that it could have been avoided simply by clinging to the time-tested credo that getting the story right is still more important than getting it first.

“As in most things Canadian, political machinations and press missteps here are less earthshaking. But it's hard to ignore that Harper's controlling inner circle is managing the news with zeal that smacks of paranoia and that the media are just as prone to gift-wrapped misinformation…

“It's not necessary to stretch the U.S. and Canadian parallels to spot some worrying trends. As is usually the case with two countries sharing a continent, political methods drift north as easily as mass culture and with the same short delay.

“What's now in the courts there is in the air here. Look at both ends of the Libby trend lines and find war sold without truth in advertising, spin arcing toward lies and journalists being played like fiddles.

“This country's advantage is that cross-border lag-time provides a fleeting chance to disrupt patterns before they become bad habits. Of course, that would require holding someone accountable and that's just not the Canadian way.”

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