Wednesday, March 07, 2007

From inception to execution

I want to resurrect a phrase that I used here yesterday - it appears in the headline above this post – because it signals that the Scooter Libby trial and the Walter Reed scandal are inextricably linked, as manifestations of a war conceived in deception and prosecuted in bad faith.

It’s probably only a matter of time before some Bush administration apologist declares that the successful prosecution of Libby is an act that emboldens the terrorists; until that happens, Bush defenders will continue to argue that the case against Libby was basically (as Woody Allen put it in Bananas) “a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a sham,” that because Libby was merely convicted on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, it can thus be argued that no real crime had been committed.

Predictably, that’s how the always-reliable Fred Barnes interpreted the jury verdict. He said yesterday on Fox News: “I would stop short of calling it politically devastating (for the Bush administration), because no one was charged with an underlying crime here of actually having leaked the name of Valerie Plame Wilson to the press…So this is not quite as devastating as it could be if there was some underlying crime.”

The Bush spinners are conveniently omitting an important fact: When a criminal defendant lies and obstructs investigators, he is by definition making it more difficult for those investigators to determine whether an “underlying crime” has been committed. Which is exactly what prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said when the Libby indictment was announced in October 2005: “What we have, when someone charges obstruction of justice, the umpire gets sand thrown in his eyes. He’s trying to figure what happened, and somebody blocked (his) view.” Obstruction, said Fitzgerald, “prevents us from making the fine judgments we want to make.”

But even if Libby or an associate had been charged with an “underlying crime” – such as leaking covert CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity to the press, in violation of federal confidentiality statutes – that too would have been a very narrow reading of this affair. Because this case was ultimately about the inception of the Iraq war, about the false WMD evidence floated by top Bush lieutenants and their determination to lash out at anyone who questioned it.

Libby worked for Dick Cheney. Libby was widely known (in the words of GOP strategist Mary Matalin) as “Cheney’s Cheney.” After Valerie Wilson’s husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly refuted some of the bogus WMD evidence, Cheney scribbled instructions about how to discredit the guy. One strategy for punishing Wilson was to out his wife, expose her CIA status. Cheney told Libby about Valerie Wilson’s status; that came out at the trial. Cheney’s scribblings were also introduced during the trial. Libby acted on those orders, spinning against Wilson with selected journalists.

All told, as Republican strategist Scott Reed said to the New York Times this morning, this trial “has shown a lot of the inner workings of the White House. It peeled the bark right off the way they operate.”

I see Scooter Libby as the Bush team’s Frankie Pentangeli. You movie buffs might recognize the name. In Godfather II, Frankie Pentangeli was the loyal Corleone family soldier who, after being ensnared by the feds, was coaxed by Tom Hagen to sit in a bathtub and open his veins – to take one for the team, as it were. Which is what Libby is doing now, willingly bleeding to protect the superiors who were key players in the prewar sales effort and the subsequent attempts to muzzle critics. As juror Dennis Collins said after the verdict yesterday, “We had a lot of sympathy for Libby…and we kept asking ourselves, ‘Where’s Cheney? Where’s Rove?’”

By the way, it’s a bit jarring to hear Bush apologists contend that a four-count jury verdict on lying and obstruction is no big deal, especially in the absence of an “underlying crime.” I seem to vividly recall that, back when special counsel Ken Starr was ensnaring President Clinton, the conservative line was that Clinton’s lies under oath were sufficient grounds for throwing him out of office. The line back then was that perjury - for any reason - was a violation of the “rule of law.”

There was no “underlying crime” in the Lewinsky affair; Clinton’s behavior may have been odious (for instance, indulging Monica while discussing Bosnia on the phone), but the carnal relations were consensual, not illegal. So here’s what the Bush apologists are really saying: Lying under oath about sex is clearly worse than lying under oath about national security.

With 3,165 U.S. soldiers dead in a war that was launched in pursuit of nonexistent WMDs, let’s see whether that conservative argument holds up in the long run.


As for the Walter Reed scandal, a fresh symbol of inept wartime execution, I wanted to briefly revisit the privatization scheme that has helped jeopardize outpatient veteran care at the famed facility:

It turns out that IAP Worldwide Services, the well-connected private company that last year was awarded a five-year contract to handle facility maintenance and health support services at Walter Reed, is the same company that played a big role in an ice-delivery fiasco during Hurricane Katrina. At the time that IAP got the Walter Reed contract, Pentagon investigators were fielding charges that the company had overcharged during Katrina.

Moreover, IAP is run by two former Halliburton executives, one of whom appeared at a congressional hearing in 2004…to defend Halliburton against charges that it had engaged in gas-price gouging in Iraq.

The writer Philip Roth once said that fiction cannot compete with the absurdities of contemporary life. He said that contemporary novelists constantly struggle “to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.”

Now I know what he means. Because, with regards to the IAP/Katrina/Halliburton actuality, there’s no way you could dream that one up.