Scooter Libby, turning aspens and the obstruction of justice

Libby's letter to Miller was cryptic. Her explanation isn't much clearer.

Published October 17, 2005 2:03PM (EDT)

In December 1998, the House of Representatives adopted two articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton. In the second of the two, the president was accused of obstructing justice for, among other things, having a conversation with Betty Currie in which he made a series of remarks that were "more like statements than questions" about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

That conversation -- and the obstruction of justice charge that arose out of it -- certainly came to mind over the weekend as we read the New York Times' account of Scooter Libby's Sept. 15, 2005, letter to Judith Miller. In the course of that letter, Libby told Miller that he had always wanted her and other reporters to feel free to testify about the conversations they had with him because he thought such testimony would be in his own "best interests."

"As I'm sure will not be news to you," Libby told Miller, "the public report of every other reporter's testimony now makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me, or knew about her before our call." According to the Times' account, Miller told the grand jury that she believed those words could be perceived as an effort "to suggest that I, too, would say that we had not discussed Ms. Plame's identity," when in fact her notes suggested the opposite.

But here's a question. Was that suggestion -- if it was a suggestion -- accompanied by a threat? Libby closed his letter with an odd bit of prose about the time passing and the seasons changing while Miller was sitting in jail: "Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work -- and life."

Was Libby suggesting that he and Miller were "connected" and needed to stick together lest they fall separately? Was he suggesting that she couldn't return to "work" or "life" unless she testified in a way that was consistent with the "public report of every other reporter's testimony"?

We hate to get all conspiracy theory about things -- especially when there really may have been a conspiracy at work here -- but it sure seems possible that Libby was trying to send Miller some kind of message in those lines, doesn't it? Miller says Fitzgerald asked her how she interpreted the "aspens" business when she appeared before the grand jury. But Miller's answer -- or at least the one she gives in her account in the Times -- is just about as cryptic as Libby's prose. Miller says she told the grand jury that she ran into Libby a couple of years ago at a rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and that the two talked then about a conference on national security issues she had just attended in Aspen. That explains how Libby knew that Miller vacations out west. But like a lot of Miller's account, it leaves just about everything else unanswered.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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