Cover-up is focus of CIA leak trial
WASHINGTON – The only criminal trial to result from a three-year investigation of government leaks begins on Tuesday and, as in previous Washington scandals, prosecutors will focus on the cover-up, not the crime.
Rather than being charged with disclosing the identity of a clandestine CIA officer, former White House official Lewis “Scooter” Libby is accused of lying to investigators.
Libby was forced to resign as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney once the charges were lodged.
In that respect, the affair is like other investigations by special prosecutors, including the Watergate and Monica Lewinsky scandals, legal experts said. Still, it has been far less expensive, costing just $1.4 million through March 2006.
In the Lewinsky sex scandal in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying to investigators but survived a Senate trial. In Watergate, President Richard Nixon’s attempt to impede the investigation forced him to leave office.
“The adage that the cover-up is worse than the crime is sometimes true,” said Robert Mintz, a former U.S. prosecutor. “Powerful people have been brought down not by what they did but how they answered questions.”
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s case may have been weakened by his decision to prosecute Libby rather than former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has admitted he revealed CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity to reporters.
“The defense will try very hard to make one of the issues a question of fairness of the prosecution of Mr. Libby,” said Scott Fredricksen, a former government lawyer.
Libby’s lawyers plan to argue that any inaccurate testimony he may have given to the FBI and a grand jury was because he was preoccupied with the Iraq war and other security matters. Cheney, his former boss, is likely to testify in his defense.
Cheney told Fox News Sunday he expected to be called as a witness but would not say whether he would testify in court or by videotaped deposition.
The vice president expressed support for his former top assistant, calling Libby “one of the more honest men I know. He’s a good man.”
‘RATHER MODEST CASE’
The probe began in mid-2003 to determine whether government officials broke the law by naming Plame, after her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticized the Bush team’s use of intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
The case quickly became the talk of Washington, as insiders speculated about the identity of the supposed leaker, who had effectively ended Plame’s career.
Liberal Internet bloggers saw it as a chance to hold the Bush administration accountable at a time it enjoyed broad public support and little scrutiny from a Republican Congress.
“For a long time, it was like this beacon of hope,” said Jane Hamsher, founder of the Firedoglake blog.
Fitzgerald’s investigation hurt the White House, experts say, as Libby quit and top political adviser Karl Rove faced intense scrutiny by prosecutors before being cleared in June.
Some say the legal woes distracted Rove from the November 7 election in which Democrats took control of the U.S. Congress.
But Fitzgerald also damaged the independence of the news media, experts said, by forcing reporters who had learned of Plame’s identity to choose between disclosing confidential conversations and prison.
Judith Miller of The New York Times spent 85 days behind bars for contempt of court before agreeing to cooperate.
A raft of books appear to back up Wilson’s claim that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. Public opinion has firmly turned against the war and Democrats promise investigations of their own.
In the end, the Libby trial may seem less the culmination of a high-profile investigation than an afterthought.
“We’re left with a rather modest case against a rather hapless personality,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.