- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

A couple of days ago, Shane Gibson, Bahamian immigration minister, resigned. The Tribune in Nassau had published Page One pictures of him in bed with Anna Nicole Smith. Could happen to anyone. Riding high in February, shot down in March. And, in fairness to the minister, both parties were fully clothed. Indeed, Anna Nicole was more fully clothed than she usually was out of bed.

My point here is that this is a classic scandal in the Westminster parliamentary tradition: On Monday, you’re blandly denying vague rumors; on Tuesday, they’re all over the front page; on Wednesday, you’re photographed alongside your long-suffering wife vowing to fight this outrageous slur; on Thursday, you’re resigning to spend more time with your family and the prime minister issues a statement that the nation will always be grateful to you for your long years of public service culminating in the passage of the Municipal Airports (Parking Lot Signage) Bill; and on Friday your successor is seated behind your desk already working on his own career-detonating scandal.

Washington doesn’t seem to do things that way. In a Beltway political scandal, you appoint a special prosecutor who investigates it for years and the scandal metastasizes and morphs in bizarre fantastic ways.

I’m not being especially partisan here. I thought Bill Clinton should have resigned when the blue dress showed up. But the months pass and instead he’s testifying to the grand jury about his definition of nonsexual relations — if the party of the first part is apart from the parts of the party of the second part while the party of the second part is partaking of the parts of the party of the first part, etc. Once you argue on that basis, the very process is a mockery.

What just happened to Scooter Libby is, I think, worse. In his closing remarks, Patrick Fitzgerald invited the jury to view a narrow perjury case as something epic: “What is this case about?” the special counsel mused. “Is it about something bigger?” Fortunately, he was musing rhetorically, and he had the answer on hand: “There is a cloud over the vice president. … There is a cloud over the White House.”

Indeed. And what exactly is the cloud? Is it that the name of a covert agent was intentionally leaked in breach of the relevant law on nondisclosure?

No. On the alleged violation of Valerie Plame’s identity, Mr. Fitzgerald was unable to produce not only a perpetrator but any crime.

Is the cloud then a more general murk? A politically motivated attempt to damage the white knight Joe Wilson as he sallied forth against the Bush dragon?

No. The man who leaked Valerie Plame’s name was Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s deputy at the State Department and a man who dislikes Mr. Rove, Mr. Cheney and all their neocon warmongering works. The journalist he leaked it to — Bob Novak — also opposed the Iraq war. Neither Mr. Armitage nor Mr. Novak had any animus against Joe Wilson. On the contrary, they broadly shared Mr. Wilson’s skepticism on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. There was no conspiracy, just Mr. Armitage gossiping like the gravelly-voiced schoolgirl he has been for years.

When a prosecutor speaks about “a cloud over the vice president’s office” and “a cloud over the White House,” he is speaking politically. There is no law about the amount of cumulus permitted over 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The prosecutor is speculating on political capital — reputation, credibility, the currency of politics. Once damaged, they’re hard to recover.

So, even if it’s not within the purview of the jury, his question is relevant to the wider world: How did this cloud get there and stay there even though it had no meaningful rainfall? Answer: Patrick Fitzgerald.

The prosecutor knew from the beginning that (a) leaking Valerie Plame’s name was not a crime and (b) the guy who did it was Richard Armitage. In other words, he was aware the public and media perception of this “case” was entirely wrong: There was no conspiracy by Bush ideologues to damage a whistle-blower, only an antiwar official making an offhand remark to an antiwar reporter.

Even the usual appeals to prosecutorial discretion (Libby was a peripheral figure with only he said/she said evidence in an investigation with no underlying crime) don’t convey the scale of Mr. Fitzgerald’s perversity: He knew, in fact, that there was no cloud, that under all the dark scudding about Mr. Rove and Mr. Cheney there was only Sunny Richard Armitage blabbing away accidentally. Yet he chose to let the entirely false impression of his “case” sit out there month in, month out, year after year glowering over the White House, doing great damage to the presidency on the critical issue of the day.

So much of the current degraded discourse on the war — “Bush lied” — comes from the false perceptions of the Joe Wilson Niger story. Britain’s MI-6, the French, the Italians and most other functioning intelligence services believed Saddam was trying to procure uranium from Africa. Lord Butler’s special investigation supported that view. So did the Senate Intelligence Committee.

So Mr. Wilson’s original charge is, if not false, at the very least unproven and the conspiracy arising therefrom entirely nonexistent. But the damage inflicted by the cloud is real and lasting.

As for Scooter Libby, he faces up to 25 years in jail for the crime of failing to remember when he first heard the name of Valerie Plame — whether by accident or intent no one can ever say for sure. But we also know Joe Wilson failed to remember his original briefing to the CIA after getting back from Niger was significantly different from how he characterized it in his op-ed in the New York Times. We do know that the contemptible Mr. Armitage failed to come forward and clear the air as his colleagues were smeared for months on end. We do know his boss Colin Powell sat by as the very character of the administration was corroded.

And we know Patrick Fitzgerald knew all this and more as he frittered away the years, and the “political blood lust” (as National Review’s Rich Lowry calls it) grew ever more disconnected from humdrum reality.

The cloud over the White House is Mr. Fitzgerald’s, and his closing remarks to the jury were highly revealing. If he dislikes Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and the Iraq war, whoopee: Run against them, or donate to the Democrats or get a talk-radio show. Instead, he chose in full knowledge of the truth to maintain artificially a three-year cloud over the White House while the anti-Bush left frantically mistook its salivating for the first drops of a downpour.

The result is the disgrace of Scooter Libby. Big deal. Mr. Fitzgerald’s disgrace is the greater, and a huge victory not for justice or the law but for criminalizing politics.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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