Granted it would be quite a competition, but is Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen the dumbest columnist ever?

In his June 19 op-ed, Cohen joined the latest Inside-the-Beltway craze, the neoconservative media riot over the 30-month jail sentence facing former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

From reading the column, it does appear that Cohen has the skills at least to master and recite the litany of talking points that the neocons have compiled to make their case about the injustice of Libby going into the slammer for committing perjury and obstruction of justice.

Cohen accuses special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald of violating longstanding Justice Department guidelines on when to bring a case; he denounces the trial – over Libby’s lying about his role in unmasking covert CIA officer Valerie Plame – as “a mountain out of a molehill”; he asserts that there was no “underlying crime”; he even pokes fun at Americans who thought the invasion of Iraq might have been a bad idea.

“They thought – if ‘thought’ can be used in this context – that if the thread was pulled on who had leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to Robert D. Novak, the effort to snooker an entire nation into war would unravel and this would show . . . who knows? Something,” Cohen wrote.

Yet, beyond a talent for reprising the conventional wisdom from Washington dinner parties, it is hard to tell what justifies Cohen’s long career as a political columnist. On nearly every major development over the past couple of decades, Cohen has missed the point or gotten it dead wrong.

For example, during the Florida recount battle in 2000, Cohen cared less about whom the voters wanted in the White House than the Washington insiders' certainty that George W. Bush would be a uniter, not a divider.

“The nation will be in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will make things better and not worse,” Cohen wrote. “That man is not Al Gore. That man is George W. Bush.”

Cohen also joined the Washington herd in the disastrous stampede for invading Iraq. After Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deceptive Iraq War speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, Cohen mocked anyone who still dared doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed hidden WMD stockpiles.

“The evidence he [Powell] presented to the United Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them,” Cohen wrote. “Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”

Misplaced Enthusiasm

It took Cohen another three years before he recognized that his enthusiasm for the war had been misplaced.

On April 4, 2006, as the U.S. death toll reached into the thousands and the Iraqi death toll soared into the tens of thousands, Cohen wrote, “those of us who once advocated this war are humbled. It’s not just that we grossly underestimated the enemy. We vastly overestimated the Bush administration.”

In normal work settings, incompetence – especially when it is chronic and has devastating consequences – justifies dismissal or at least demotion, maybe a desk in Storage Room B where Cohen could sit with his red stapler, but without access to a word processor.

Yet, in the strange world of Washington punditry, success is measured not in being right but in keeping one’s opinion within the parameters of the capital’s respectable opinion, even if those judgments are atrociously wrong.

As for the Plame case, Cohen seems to be living in the propaganda dreamscape of the still-influential neocons, not in the real world where the disclosure of Plame’s identity caused actual damage, destroying her undercover career as a CIA officer and putting in jeopardy the lives of foreigners who worked with her investigating weapons proliferation.

Plus, the motive behind the leaking of Plame’s identity was not “gossip,” as Cohen asserts, but a White House-orchestrated campaign to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for telling the truth about his 2002 fact-finding mission to Africa. Wilson’s findings helped the U.S. intelligence community debunk false claims about Iraq attempting to buy yellowcake uranium from Africa.

Despite warnings from the CIA, however, President George W. Bush cited Iraq’s supposed uranium shopping during his 2003 State of the Union Address, making it a key part of the case to invade Iraq.

When Wilson went public with his story in July 2003, the Bush administration sought to discredit him by suggesting that his Africa trip was just a junket arranged by his CIA wife. One White House official told a reporter from the Washington Post that the administration had informed at least six reporters about Plame.

The official said the disclosure was “purely and simply out of revenge.” That was a revelation that special prosecutor Fitzgerald corroborated in his investigation.

Libby’s Role

Also, contrary to Cohen’s column, Libby, as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, was a central figure in this anti-Wilson smear campaign. Libby briefed two reporters – Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper – about Plame’s identity and brought press secretary Ari Fleischer into the leak operation.

Though it turned out that other senior administration officials, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and his friend, White House political adviser Karl Rove, were the successful ones in getting a journalist, Robert Novak, to publish Plame’s identity, it wasn’t for the lack of Libby trying to get Plame’s identity into the press.

Nor is it accurate to say that there was no underlying crime. It is illegal to willfully disclose the identity of a covert CIA officer – and the administration officials involved were well aware that her identity was classified. Leaking classified material also can be – and often is – treated as a crime.

But this was a conspiracy that involved both the President and Vice President, presenting extraordinary obstacles for prosecution. The President and the Vice President, through delegation of authority from the President, have broad power to declassify information.

Indeed, some constitutional experts would argue that the President can declassify any information he wishes, and it’s known that Bush did so in the Plame matter at least to the degree that he cleared some parts of a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate for Libby and others to use in briefing reporters.

It remains unclear whether Bush and/or Cheney specifically approved leaking Plame’s identity – since their interviews with prosecutor Fitzgerald remain secret – but their involvement would have made prosecution under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 or the Espionage Act extremely difficult if not impossible.

Bush and Cheney also appear to have played a role in the cover-up of the Plame leak after a criminal investigation began in September 2003. Though Bush knew a great deal about the get-Wilson campaign (having declassified information for it), he claimed to know nothing and disingenuously urged his subordinates to say what they knew.

“I want to know the truth,” Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. “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.”

However, since the various conspirators knew that Bush already was in the know, they would have read his comments as a signal to lie, which is what they did. Rove issued a false statement through the White House press office denying any involvement.

That prompted Libby to seek help from Cheney. As Libby’s lawyer Theodore Wells disclosed in the trial’s opening remarks, Libby’s complaint was that “they’re trying to set me up; they want me to be the sacrificial lamb.”

‘The Pres’

In response to Libby’s appeal, Cheney penned a message to the press secretary demanding equal treatment for Libby. “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 to press secretary Scott McClellan.

In the note, Cheney initially ascribed Libby’s sacrifice to Bush but apparently thought better of it, crossing out “the Pres” and putting the clause in a passive tense. Complying with Cheney’s wishes on Oct. 4, 2003, McClellan added Libby to the list of officials who have “assured me that they were not involved in this.”

So, the evidence is that not only was there a high-level administration conspiracy to leak Plame’s identity but there was an equally high-level conspiracy to cover up the truth. Libby got nailed because he failed to shift away from the cover stories when the investigation grew serious following Fitzgerald’s appointment in December 2003.

Rather than a wild-eyed prosecutor on a rampage, Fitzgerald actually appears to have been a very cautious prosecutor who chose not to pursue what would have been a deserving but politically disruptive case against Bush, Cheney and other government conspirators implicated in both leaking classified material and participating in a cover-up.

But all this is missed by Cohen. In his June 19 column, he does reiterate his current position that the Iraq War was a mistake. He also acknowledges that lying under oath is a bad thing to do. But – blinded by the pervasive neocon talking points – he refuses to see the larger scandal.

“I have come to hate the war and I cannot approve of lying under oath – not by Scooter, not by Bill Clinton, not by anybody,” Cohen wrote. “But the underlying crime is absent, the sentence is excessive and the investigation should not have been conducted in the first place. This is a mess. Should Libby be pardoned? Maybe. Should his sentence be commuted? Definitely.”

There was a time when the Washington Post aggressively pursued cover-ups of government wrongdoing. Not that long ago, during the Clinton administration, a favorite pearl of Washington wisdom was: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

But that was then and this is now. Today, the Post editorial page and its prized columnists, like Cohen, eagerly join in cover-ups and happily bash anyone who won’t go with the Washington flow.

So, the question remains, is Cohen just a clueless incompetent when he berates Fitzgerald for the “train wreck” of the Libby conviction or is this columnist really a clever guy who is very skilled at knowing how to stay on the gravy train of modern Washington journalism?

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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