It is often said that a good trial is like a morality play in which the jury must find the true villain and the moral of the story. But what if all the actors are villains and there is no moral lesson? Well, then you have the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
This week, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney will stand trial for perjury and obstruction of justice. Some of Washington's biggest names in politics, government and journalism will parade before the jury either in person or by reference: President Bush, Vice President Cheney, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Judith Miller, conservative columnist Bob Novak and Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward. They will be joined by the victims in this story, former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson.
Unfortunately, the cast is better than the story, which has gone from a cancer on the presidency to more of a nosebleed. For two years, beginning with Patrick Fitzgerald's appointment as special counsel on Dec. 30, 2003, the public followed the investigation of who had leaked Valerie Plame's identity to Novak for one of his classic hatchet jobs. The career-ending outing of the covert CIA operative was retaliation for her husband's public rebuttal of the Bush administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction leading to the Iraq war. It became high drama as reporters were hunted down by Fitzgerald and threatened with jail if they did not disclose confidential sources. A steady stream of reporters and officials were led to the grand jury while one reporter, Judith Miller, was led to jail.
As with most Washington scandals, however, the eventual criminal charges concerned not the original offense (disclosing the classified identity of a covert operative) but the response to the investigation -- the coverup. No one has yet been indicted for the original leak, but Scooter Libby was charged with throwing sand in the umpire's eyes, in Fitzgerald's memorable (and quite lengthy) analogy. In talking to federal agents who were trying to determine how Plame's name had been made public, Libby allegedly made false statements about how he had learned what Plame did for a living and what he had said to reporters about it. He is charged with two counts of making false statements to FBI agents, two counts of perjury for making the same claims in front of a grand jury, and obstruction of justice for allegedly having said these things in order to hinder the investigation. Libby says that these were busy days on which details simply skipped his mind.
The main problem with this story, however, is the lack of a single completely unblemished character among the central cast. It is not that the case is devoid of sins and sinners. What is missing is a person of unalloyed virtue to serve as a standard for judging the rest. In fact, the case now reads like a political parable of the seven deadly sins, with each of the main characters being undone by a fundamental personality flaw.
For those without a pocket Dante, the seven deadly sins are pride (or hubris), sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, lust and greed. Actually the original, biblical description of some of these sins in Proverbs 6:16-19 seems to read like a standard Beltway résumé: "A proud look, a lying tongue ... [a] heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, [a] false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren."
The seven main characters from the Libby trial seem created for this political parable. Each shows the dangers of succumbing to the cardinal sins of Washington's inferno.
Pride. The context for this drama was shaped in large part by the pride of President George W. Bush. Also called hubris, pride is a sin that many associate with Bush's famous cowboy strut and his "bring it on" taunts to terrorists. But the Libby trial will highlight Bush's most consequential sin of pride, his use of false intelligence to order the preemptive invasion of another country. According to various accounts from former Bush officials, Bush was obsessed with Saddam Hussein and determined to justify an invasion of Iraq after taking office. Intelligence officials complained that Bush only wanted to hear reports that supported such an attack. Ultimately, it was Bush who sold the war using the spurious WMD claims. When these claims began to unravel, Bush dug in deeper and his administration attacked critics like Wilson as unpatriotic or dishonest or both. Even today, Bush remains the poster child for the ravages of pride. Rather than admit that his single most important decision in office was an unmitigated disaster that has cost a projected half a trillion dollars and 3,000 U.S. lives and counting, he has decided to escalate the conflict further.
Sloth. Greatly enabling Bush's pride was sloth. The Libby trial will remind the public not only of Bush's use of false intelligence but of how the march to war in Iraq was made possible by the failure of others to investigate and refute these claims. Even at the time of the congressional authorization, some of our closest allies were alerting the American people that the intelligence was wrong on WMD and many people outside Congress were questioning the rosy predictions of administration officials like Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. Yet members of both parties, including leading Senate Democrats, refused to acknowledge such doubts and jumped on the war bandwagon.
In the intelligence community, people like former CIA director George Tenet also showed what a little sloth could do for a career in the Bush administration. Having insisted that the evidence for the existence of Iraqi WMD was a "slam-dunk," Tenet gave Bush only that intelligence he needed to justify the war. Tenet was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his utter lack of effort. This universal effort to remain ignorant magnified the impact when Joseph Wilson publicly revealed the widespread doubts within the intelligence community about the basis for the Iraq war.
Gluttony. In Washington, gluttony is one of the most favored sins. The Libby case, oddly enough, reveals the dangers of gluttony in the story of the victims. There is no question that Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson were both legitimate victims when the scandal began. A former ambassador, Wilson was dispatched in 2002 to Niger by the CIA to look into possible Iraqi efforts to buy "yellowcake" uranium for weapons of mass destruction. Wilson found no such evidence and informed the CIA of his findings. He was alarmed, therefore, to hear the administration use the claim of WMD evidence to justify the war and realized that neither Democrats nor Republicans were keen on investigating the truth. So Wilson wrote an Op-Ed column for the New York Times that argued that the war was driven by President's Bush's predispositions rather than any prewar intelligence. Bush allies struck back at Wilson by targeting his wife. However, the Wilsons soon seemed to succumb to the allure of their newfound celebrity. Starting with a picture in Vanity Fair of the couple in a sports car flashing toothy grins with the White House in the background, the Wilsons began to seem less and less like victims forced into the public eye against their will. Indeed, Joseph Wilson appeared on every program short of "Hollywood Squares" to criticize the White House. It is difficult to claim outrage at the outing of a covert CIA operative when the former agent attends celebrity-studded dinners and appears to be preening for glossy pictures. There is no question that some of this attention was thrust upon the Wilsons, but the range of appearances moved the couple from sympathetic to gluttonous figures in the eyes of many.
Wrath. No one, of course, revels in the sin of wrath better than Vice President Cheney. Starting with his mad scribblings in the margin of an article on Wilson's allegations, Cheney spurred his aides (particularly his closest aide, Libby) to action. In many accounts, Cheney comes across like England's Henry II. He tells his staff to rid him of this meddlesome ambassador, and Libby and others charge off dutifully to dispatch the foe in classic Beltway fashion. He apparently received assistance from Armitage, who Novak claims fed him the dirt (though Armitage denies much of Novak's account). Within eight days of Wilson's New York Times Op-Ed, Valerie Plame had been outed in Novak's column and the ambassador and his wife were being hit from all quarters. Novak was an obvious choice for such an attack. Indeed, Novak has never explained the necessity of outing Plame in print. He could have simply noted that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA without naming her. What's more, he admits that a CIA source asked him not to name her but he did so anyway. The only possible motivation, for both Cheney and Novak, was the desire to punish Wilson by ruining his wife -- pure, biblical wrath. Will Cheney pay for his wrath? While Cheney is the perfect witness to show that this was not a small hit job for Libby, Fitzgerald notably left him off the list. Throughout his investigation, Fitzgerald seems to have avoided Cheney or even the mention of his name in a Voldemort-like aversion. Now he has left Cheney's name off the prosecution's witness list. It will be Libby's defense team, not Fitzgerald, who calls Cheney. The question will be whether Fitzgerald will do a real cross-examination and bore into Cheney or whether, as in his investigation, Fitzgerald will let the vice president give a purely pedestrian account of his involvement in the affair.
Envy. The sin of envy is personified by former New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Long before the Libby case, Miller was a prime example of how journalists can become envious of their subjects. Given a sense of immunity by her editors, Miller was one of a rising class of celebrity reporters who seem intent on becoming part of the stories or debates that they are supposedly covering. Not content to merely report the views of others, they write books and give speeches on the legitimacy of certain policies or the need for certain actions. In her writings, Miller became personally invested in the discovery of WMD in Iraq. This investment became so great that when it became clear the search for WMD would be fruitless, and a U.S. commander sought to redeploy the troops who were searching, Miller threatened to ruin him. She indicated that she would not tolerate such a change in military priorities. Much later, it became clear that Miller had not told her own editors about her role in the Libby affair and her long career at the Times ended. A stint in jail that was supposed to seem heroic now appears to have been entirely unnecessary and opportunistic. Miller's fate shows how dangerous it can be when reporters stop covering players and try to become players themselves.
Lust. The sin of lust conveys the craving of something that is not properly your own; to have, according to one Christian dictionary, a "self-absorbed desire for an object, person, or experience." Early references call this sin "extravagance" to capture the departure of one from the love of God to the distraction of other things or people. Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald quickly showed how lust can take many different forms. For Fitzgerald, it involved journalists and their confidential sources. While Fitzgerald showed a surprising lack of aggressiveness toward the White House (and particularly Cheney), he was obsessed with forcing reporters to give him privileged information without limitation. Indeed, the single most active area of litigation in the whole Plame affair investigation has been Fitzgerald's strong-arming of reporters and news organizations. With a single case, Fitzgerald has proved the need for a federal shield law that protects journalists from being forced to reveal sources in federal prosecutions. If there is any hope for a positive outcome from this sordid affair, it may be the best chance in years to finally see the passage of such a law.
Greed. This is actually the broadest category of sin. Often referred to as avarice, it includes all forms of wanton conduct, from betrayal to disloyalty to dishonesty, for personal gain. It is a category that fits many of the Libby characters, including Libby himself. Libby made his reputation as a strong arm for Cheney and symbolizes for many the model of a Beltway operator willing to play on the edges of law and ethics for advancement. Woodward, the icon of investigative journalism, was shown in this case to be equally blinded by self-advancement. Eager to appear on shows dealing with the scandal, Woodward never revealed to either his editors or the public that he was involved in the case and knew who in the administration had shared information about Valerie Plame Wilson with reporters. Asked point-blank about any knowledge, Woodward at best failed to discuss what he knew and at worst lied about his knowledge. Like those he has covered, Woodward did not appear to hesitate in misleading other journalists in order to stay relevant and active in the scandal. He later apologized and explained that he was unnerved in watching so many reporters threatened with jail -- but that did not stop him from appearing widely on talk shows to hold forth on Plamegate. Woodward was only outdone in this regard by former Deputy Secretary of State Armitage, who turned out to have been one of Novak's original sources. Armitage allowed an investigation to rage and people to go to jail while he remained silent about his central role in the scandal.
One might think that a story that incorporated every mortal sin would end by imparting some uplifting moral message. But this is Washington in 2007. There is no one to deliver such a message -- no John Dean speaking of a cancer on the presidency, nor even a Martha Mitchell, donning outrage and white vinyl boots. Instead, we will just have a bunch of people acting consistently and predictably for their own benefit regardless of the cost to others. The Libby trial will turn entirely on the credibility of witness testimony, and will thus quickly become an exercise of relative truth. In other words, it will prove to be the perfect Washington morality play.