Joe Klein's stirring defense of Lewis Libby

The "liberal" Time pundit asserts multiple (though revealing) falsehoods in calling for Libby to be freed.

Published June 11, 2007 11:28AM (EDT)

It is difficult to recall a single episode which has been more revealing of our political culture than the collective Beltway horror over the plight of the poor, maltreated and persecuted (and convicted felon) Lewis Libby. It is hardly surprising that the right-wing movement of which he is a part operates from the premise that their comrades ought to be exempt from criminal prosecution even when they commit felonies. That "principle" is a central and defining one for that movement, applied religiously to the Leader and everyone on down the right-wing food chain.

But what the Libby case demonstrates is that so many establishment journalists believe this just as religiously. To our media stars, "Beltway crime" is an oxymoron, at least when it is committed by a high-level political official. In exactly the way they treated all prior acts of lawbreaking by Bush officials as innocuous political controversies, the Beltway press speaks of Lewis Libby's felonies as being something other than a "real crime," all so plainly based on the premise that Libby -- as a dignified member in good standing of the elevated and all-important Beltway court -- ought to be exempt from the type of punishment doled out to "real criminals" who commit "real crimes."

Time's Joe Klein yesterday became but the latest in a long series of Beltway pundits expressing righteous anger over the grave injustice of One of Them being sent to something as low and common as a prison. In a post entitled "Thoughts on Sentencing," Klein actually argues -- seriously -- that it is imperative for the public interest that Paris Hilton receive jail time because "it is exemplary: It sends the message . . .that even rich twits can't avoid the law," but:

I have a different feeling about Libby. His "perjury"--not telling the truth about which reporters he talked to--would never be considered significant enough to reach trial, much less sentencing, much less time in stir if he weren't Dick Cheney's hatchet man. . . .

But jail time? Do we really want to spend our tax dollars keeping Scooter Libby behind bars? I don't think so. This "perjury" case only exists because of his celebrity--just as the ridiculous "perjury" case against Bill Clinton, which ballooned into the fantastically stupid and destructive impeachment proceedings.

There are so many fallacious and misleading assertions packed within just these few sentences that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Note, for instance, the snide use of quotation marks for "perjury" -- as though Libby's conviction constitutes that crime only in theory, in the most technical and meaningless sense (if at all). And then there is Klein's transparent attempt to minimize Libby's crimes by characterizing it as a mere matter of inaccurately recounting "which reporters [Libby] talked to" -- the standard "faulty-memory" excuse of Libby apologists which most of them (but not Klein) felt compelled to abandon once a jury unanimously found that Libby deliberately lied to the FBI and a Grand Jury on material matters.

And Klein deliberately makes no mention of the several felony counts of "obstruction of justice" and "false statements" for which Libby was convicted -- it's just "perjury." More dishonest still is Klein's underhanded attempt to insinuate that the conviction and sentencing are politically motivated (none of this would have happened "if he weren't Dick Cheney's hatchet man"), while Klein inexcusably conceals from his readers the fact that the prosecutor who prosecuted Libby and the judge who sentenced him are both Republicans and appointees of George W. Bush's administration.

But the most glaring falsehood in Klein's Libby defense is also the most easily disproven: namely, Klein's claim that "perjury" is something for which people are not convicted and imprisoned unless they are "celebrities" or "Dick Cheney's hatchet man." A very quick and basic Google search (which so many Beltway pundits like Klein, and his boss Rick Stengel, have repeatedly proven themselves too slothful to perform), or even a casual perusal of Klein's own comment section, quickly turns up the following, demonstrating just how false is Klein's assertion that Libby is the unfair victim of "celebrity" prosecution:

St. Louis Dispatch, March 21, 2006:

Still insisting that he never took a payoff or tried to hide evidence, former East St. Louis Police Chief Ronald Matthews began serving 33 months in prison Monday after a judge sentenced him for obstruction of justice and perjury.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith argued for a tougher sentence for Matthews.

White-collar criminal defense law firm Blank Rome, Press release, October 6, 2004:

A recent federal court decision reflects a disturbing trend in white collar criminal prosecutions: the tendency of judges to punish defendants who insist on proceeding to trial rather than pleading guilty, particularly those who exercise the right to testify in their own defense and are thereafter convicted. . . .

In September 2004, United States District Judge Richard Owen granted the government's motion for an upward departure and sentenced former Silicon Valley investment banker Frank Quattrone to 18 months in prison. The sentencing followed Quattrone's conviction in May 2004 for obstructing grand jury and SEC investigations into how his bank allocated shares of IPO stocks.

New York Times, September 11, 1987 (h/t Attaturk):

The United States Attorney in Manhattan, Rudolph W. Giuliani, declared yesterday that the one-year prison sentence that a Queens judge received for perjury was "somewhat shocking."

"A sentence of one year seemed to me to be very lenient," Mr. Giuliani said, when asked to comment on the sentence imposed Wednesday on Justice Francis X. Smith, the former Queens administrative judge. . . .

Justice Smith was convicted of committing perjury before a grand jury investigating corruption in the city, Mr. Giuliani said later, adding that "he could have helped root out corruption" by cooperating with the grand jury.

U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, November 2006 (.pdf):

Prison sentence for perjury in a bankruptcy case

A federal judge today sentenced Douglas W. Cox, 44, to ten months in prison. In April, Cox admitted that, during a bankruptcy deposition, he testified falsely about the ownership of five vending machines. . . .

At a plea hearing in April, Assistant U.S. Attorney James H. Leavey said that the government could prove that, during a deposition taken in March 2004, Cox falsely stated that he did not own the vending machines at issue. Cox, who had a business in East Providence and filed for bankruptcy in 2003, had actually purchased the machines in January 2003 and still owned them at the time the deposition was taken.

Business Wire, September 30, 1998:

A Boston police officer was sentenced late yesterday to 2 years and 10 months in prison after being convicted in federal court for perjury and obstruction of justice during a grand jury investigation of the unlawful beating of a fellow plain clothes police officer. . . .

After a six-day jury trial in June, CONLEY was convicted of one count of perjury before a federal grand jury and one count of obstruction of justice. The jury acquitted CONLEY on one count of perjury.

Harvard Law School On-line Library:

In 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and alleged that both he and [Alger] Hiss had been members of the Communist party during the 1930s and that they had both served as spies for the Soviet Union. Though Hiss denied the charges, he became a part of a complicated series of legal battles and was eventually convicted on two counts of perjury. Hiss served a sentence of 44 months, from March 1951 to November 1954, in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania., June 6, 2005:

Rapper Lil' Kim was sentenced today to a year in prison for perjury. The Grammy-winning artist was convicted in March for repeatedly lying to a federal grand jury in an attempt to protect members of her entourage involved in a shooting outside New York radio station Hot 97 in 2001. Lil' Kim (real name: Kimberly Jones) claimed she didn't see two friends at the scene of the shooting, but security footage and witness accounts repudiated her claim.

Before sentencing, the 29-year-old hip-hop diva addressed the judge, saying that "at the time I thought it was the right thing to do but I now know it was wrong." She was also fined $50,000.

And this Time Magazine article from January 13, 1975, details that the majority of Watergate criminals served jail time for perjury and obstruction of justice. When prosecutors conclude that someone is deliberately attempting to conceal the truth in an investigation of public importance, it is common -- and has been for quite some time -- for them to pursue perjury and obstruction of justice charges for reasons that are self-evident. But Klein here is interested only in defending Lewis Libby and the license of Beltway power, and is willing to make any assertions, no matter how fact-free, in service of that ignoble mission.

The reason Bush officials have believed they can simply break the law with complete impunity is because the Beltway culture in which they operate believes that. Most importantly, our media stars absolutely believe that, that lawbreaking by the most powerful political officials who rule their world is not real lawbreaking, even when they are convicted in a court of law -- after ample due process and with the best legal defense team which Marty Peretz and Fred Thompson could help pay for -- of committing multiple felonies.

There are many reasons why the political press fails to investigate and uncover real wrongdoing on the part of the government, but a leading reason is that they do not see lawbreaking as genuinely wrong or the lawbreakers as corrupt. These are their friends and colleagues -- their socioeconomic peers and, with increasing and disturbing frequency, their spouses and family memebers -- and while Important Bush Officials might be "guilty" of engaging in harmless and perfectly accepted political "hardball," they are never genuinely bad people engaged in genuinely bad acts. And they certainly do not belong in criminal courtrooms or prison.

It is so painfully revealing, though equally unsurprising, to read one of our most prestigious pundits, the Leading Liberal in Time Magazine, argue that Paris Hilton should be imprisoned as an example of the stern rule of law that prevails in our country but convicted felon Lewis Libby -- who deliberately lied under oath to the Grand Jury and as part of an FBI investigation -- should be set free. Or that George Bush's spying on Americans in violation of the criminal law is a matter of mere political controversy which Democrats ought steadfastly to avoid. There is no class of people more defensive of the prerogatives of political power than our "journalist" class, even though, in a healthy and functioning democracy, the exact opposite would be true.

By Glenn Greenwald

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