It’s a well-worn talking point for George W. Bush’s supporters to say there was no underlying crime beneath former White House aide I. Lewis Libby’s conviction for obstructing justice, a debatable point itself. But the evidence is clear there was a larger cover-up conspiracy – and it could still unravel.

The problem for prosecutors has been that the cover-up conspiracy involves the top two executive officers of the U.S. government, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, meaning that the standards of proof required and concerns over the nation’s well-being if charges were brought have risen to near prohibitive levels.

Which is why the question of whether Libby will be sent off to jail to start serving his 30-month sentence before his appeals are exhausted is so consequential. While many Libby supporters are confident that President Bush will pardon Libby before leaving office, it is less clear that Bush will act before Election 2008.

That means if U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton orders Libby to start his jail term in July while his appeals proceed – as it now appears the judge will – Bush will be faced with the prospect of Libby serving more than half his sentence before November 2008 and a risk that Libby finally might cooperate with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

If Libby, who was Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, were to start talking, he could explain the full role of Bush and Cheney in orchestrating the smear campaign against Iraq War critic Joseph Wilson, which set the stage for Libby and other administration officials to leak the identity of Wilson’s wife, covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, in summer 2003.

Libby also had a front-row seat to the White House cover-up that followed the revelation in September 2003 that the CIA had sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department, complaining about the security breach and prompting the start of a formal investigation.

The evidence from Libby’s trial makes clear that Bush and Cheney had authorized a media campaign to discredit former U.S. Ambassador Wilson, who undertook a CIA fact-finding trip to Niger in 2002 and accused the White House in July 2003 of “twisting” intelligence about Iraq’s alleged pursuit of uranium in Africa to justify going to war.

At minimum, the evidence shows that Bush selectively declassified parts of a National Intelligence Estimate to undercut Wilson, and Cheney ordered Libby to share the information with friendly reporters.

In executing this media strategy, Libby and other administration officials exposed Plame’s identity, though it’s still unclear if Bush or Cheney specifically authorized release of Plame’s CIA employment to discredit Wilson’s Niger trip as a case of nepotism.

Signaling the Conspirators

Beyond the Plame leak itself, a strong case could be made that the President and Vice President sought to mislead federal investigators and the public. On Sept. 30, 2003, Bush declared that anyone who knew anything about the leak should speak up, even as he was concealing the fact that he had authorized parts of the anti-Wilson campaign.

“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.”

Since Bush himself was withholding key information, Bush’s statement could be read as a signal to subordinates to hang tough and deny knowledge, anticipating that the inquiry – then under the control of Attorney General John Ashcroft – would peter out.

In early October, Cheney wrote a memo to the White House press office demanding that a statement be issued clearing Libby of a role in the Plame leak as had already been done for other White House officials, such as Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove.

“Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy the Pres that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others,” Cheney wrote. In the memo, the Vice President initially ascribed Libby’s sacrifice to Bush but then crossed out “the Pres” and put the clause in a passive tense.

On Oct. 4, 2003, pursuant to Cheney’s memo, White House press secretary Scott McClellan added Libby to the list of officials who have “assured me that they were not involved in this.”

There was also a larger context to the cover-up. In fall 2003, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the Washington press corps had been easily deceived about the Iraq invasion. So, the administration had reason to be confident that the cover-up would hold – as long as the Justice Department played ball.

But Attorney General Ashcroft threw the White House a curve when he recused himself and let Deputy Attorney General James Comey pick a special prosecutor outside the administration’s direct control. Comey chose Chicago U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald, known as a no-nonsense prosecutor with a record of pursuing public corruption cases.

Suddenly, Libby and other senior officials were facing sterner FBI questioning. Still, instead of admitting a role in leaking Plame’s identity, Libby stuck to his denials, concocting a story that he had learned about Plame’s CIA work from NBC’s Tim Russert.

Libby apparently still hoped that his allies in the mainstream news media, particularly New York Times reporter Judy Miller, would shield him from the truth. Indeed, Miller went to jail for 85 days instead of divulging what her source, Libby, had revealed about Plame’s identity.

Under pressure in 2005, however, Libby released Miller from her pledge of confidentiality but phrased his letter in a way that suggested she should stick with the team.

“Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning,” Libby wrote. “They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.”

But Libby’s bid failed. With testimony from Miller and others, Fitzgerald built an ironclad case that Libby had lied to investigators and obstructed justice.

‘Sacrificial Lamb’

At the start of Libby’s trial in 2007, defense lawyer Theodore Wells claimed that his client had been assigned the role of White House fall guy. In opening remarks, Wells told the jury that Libby went to his boss, Dick Cheney, in early October 2003 and complained, “they’re trying to set me up; they want me to be the sacrificial lamb.”

But Wells never fleshed out this fall-guy argument during the trial, nor did Libby testify in his own defense. That left the impression to some that Libby may have been sending a message to Bush and Cheney that he expected to be taken care of, one way or another.

Since Fitzgerald has never disclosed what Bush and Cheney told investigators during their own interviews, it’s also unclear how vulnerable they might be to criminal charges if Libby were to agree to give the full story in exchange for greater leniency.

But it is clear that Bush did not live up to his early pledge to punish any administration official who helped leak Plame’s classified identity. Instead, Bush promoted Karl Rove, who served as a source on Plame’s identity for at least two journalists, including Robert Novak, the first to unmask Plame in a newspaper column on July 14, 2003.

By making Rove deputy White House chief of staff, instead of firing him, Bush reduced the risk that Rove might join Libby in running to the prosecutor with evidence of a presidential-level conspiracy to obstruct justice. Though there was no choice but to cast Libby outside the tent, Rove was kept inside.

The Plamegate cover-up also has extended beyond just the direct conspirators. Bush and Cheney have counted on the Republican attack machine and the frequently complicit mainstream news media to keep up a steady barrage of talking points against Wilson, Plame and anyone else who tries to keep this scandal alive.

The administration has succeeded in sowing so much confusion that many Americans have tuned out Plamegate or have succumbed to the oft-repeated talking points, even those that have been disproved.

For instance, right-wing talk shows continue to insist that Plame was not “covert” despite the fact that the CIA has confirmed she was.

Bottom Lines

Still, there remain two bottom lines to this story:

First, senior administration officials did divulge the identity of a covert CIA officer destroying her career and endangering foreigners who cooperated with her in investigating the proliferation of dangerous weapons in the Middle East.

Reasonable people can disagree whether these actions meet the requirements of premeditation contained in the Intelligence Agents Identities Act of 1982 and whether the available evidence – especially given the President’s broad control over classification authority – could establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

But there can be little question that the White House-orchestrated campaign against Wilson, which led to the disclosure of his wife’s identity, resulted in serious damage to U.S. national security.

Second, the evidence is overwhelming that the administration conducted a cover-up of the Plamegate facts, relying not only on their own false statements about the leak itself but enlisting foot soldiers in the Washington press corps and among Republicans in Congress to continue smearing Wilson to this day and thus confuse the American public.

From the start, Bush and Cheney appear to have sensed that they could make the cover-up work if they transformed it into a political spat. To a great extent, they have been proven correct in that assumption.

Now, their last remaining Plamegate concern is that “Scooter” Libby might calculate that he stands a better chance of reducing his time in jail if he tells the whole story rather than trust that his loyal silence will be rewarded by a pardon from a thankful President Bush.

The next move in this four-year-old chess match between those who want to hide the truth and those who want to expose it rests with Judge Walton and whether he sends Libby off to jail now rather than later.

[For more on the Libby case, see Consortiumnews.com’s Special Report, “Scooter Libby’s Time-Travel Trial.”]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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