Accuracy in Media

President Bush’s commutation of Lewis Libby’s prison term was the right thing to do because it enables Libby to continue to fight in the courts for total exoneration. Libby was the victim of an over-zealous prosecutor and media and a jury which was prejudiced against him by pre-trial publicity. He deserves not only to be free from prison but to be declared an honest man and dedicated public servant who did his duty as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Cheney’s motive, which is hardly surprising, was to set the record straight about the activities of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, sent on a dubious mission by the CIA after being recommended by his wife, the controversial CIA operative Valerie Plame. Wilson had come back spreading misinformation about the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy, especially in a New York Times column. The CIA’s motive was apparently to sabotage the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy. It largely succeeded, demonstrating that an unelected bureaucracy is functioning behind the scenes and undermining the foreign policy of our elected leaders.

This is the story that must be told. Libby’s appeal of his guilty verdict in the case provides that opportunity.

But the liberal media, of course, see the whole thing differently. From their perspective, which includes a daily pummeling of White House spokesman Tony Snow over the matter, the Presidential commutation of Libby’s prison sentence has ramped up the tension in Washington and could prove to be a pivotal moment in Bush’s remaining time in office. With a showdown looming over subpoenaed White House documents and a possible constitutional confrontation ahead in another case, the Libby matter has created what they view as a presidency in crisis.

In fact, Bush’s action in the Libby case demonstrates a president in control of the facts and the situation. It is one of the most comprehensible and legitimate actions taken by Bush in a long time.

Media Reaction

The responses from the media were all over the board. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which has generally supported the Administration on the Iraq War and national security matters, had called for a full pardon, and was disappointed by the commutation. The conservative Washington Times and the liberal Washington Post both said they could have supported a reduction of the sentence from 30 months to the 15 to 21 months recommended by the probation office, but neither approved of Bush’s action. And the New York Times, in an editorial titled “Soft on Crime,” opposed any action on behalf of Libby, though one of their regular columnists, David Brooks, thought Bush got it just right. So did Timothy Noah, a liberal columnist for William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, preferred a pardon but was satisfied with the commutation.

I argued in a previous column that this process should continue, because at the end of the line, Libby should be exonerated, not pardoned, since a pardon carries the implication of guilt. Thus, a commutation allows for that outcome, without Libby having to go to jail in the meantime. President Bush initially said that the 30 months in prison was severe, but he would allow the $250,000 fine and probation to stay in effect. In issuing the commutation, he said that “the jury verdict ought to stand.” That could make it difficult for him to later pardon Libby should he not be successful on appeal, but the White House has not ruled out a pardon at a later date.

The Wall Street Journal declared that “…by failing to issue a full pardon, Mr. Bush is evading responsibility for the role his Administration played in letting the Plame affair build into fiasco, and ultimately, this personal tragedy.” They said that “Joe Wilson’s original, false accusation about pre-war intelligence metastasized into the issue of who ‘outed’ his wife, Valerie Plame, as an intelligence officer. As the event unfolded, it fell to Mr. Libby to defend the Administration against Mr. Wilson’s original charge…”

Times Defends Wilson

The New York Times came to Wilson’s defense, saying in an editorial that Wilson “was asked to investigate a central claim in Mr. Bush’s drive to war with Iraq―whether Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Africa. Mr. Wilson concluded that Iraq had not done that and had the temerity to share those conclusions with the American public.”

“It seems clear from the record that Vice President Dick Cheney organized a campaign to discredit Mr. Wilson,” said the Times editorial. “And Mr. Libby, who was Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, was willing to lie to protect his boss.”

In fact, Cheney’s interest all along was to find out who had sent Wilson on the mission. Libby was one of several officials who learned that Wilson’s wife, CIA employee Valerie Plame, had recommended him. But it was a State Department official, Richard Armitage, not a proponent of the Iraq War, who had first provided her name to columnist Robert Novak. He was the real “leaker” but escaped any prosecution at the hands of Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. The reason for Fitzgerald’s decision to prosecute Libby has been the subject of wide speculation. But there can be no doubt that Libby played a minor role in the affair and didn’t deserve to be targeted in this way.

On the same day as the above Times editorial, a Washington Post editorial noted that, after two years of investigation, Fitzgerald “charged no one with a crime” for leaking Plame’s name and that “he never demonstrated that a crime occurred.”

It added, “Early on the prosecutor had learned that the primary source of the disclosure to columnist Robert D. Novak was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who was not charged. Mr. Libby’s trial provided convincing evidence that the revelation of Ms. Plame’s identity was not the result of a conspiracy to punish her husband, administration critic Joseph C. Wilson IV―the allegation that caused all the partisan furor surrounding the case and that led to Mr. Fitzgerald’s appointment.”

In terms of what to do about Libby, the Post said that “Advocates for clemency point to President Bill Clinton, who lied under oath but was not removed from office or put in jail, and to Mr. Clinton’s former national security adviser, Samuel R. ‘Sandy’ Berger, who lied to investigators about sneaking documents from the National Archives but who also received no jail time.”

The Clinton Pardon Scandals

Not only that, but Clinton had pardoned a drug dealer, Carlos Vignali, whose family had paid money to Hillary’s brother; and Susan McDougal, the wife of Jim McDougal, the Clintons’ Whitewater partner. She had been convicted for mail fraud and misapplication of hundreds of thousands of dollars of Small Business Investment Corporation funds. Clinton’s most infamous pardon was of the corrupt financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife gave more than a million dollars to Clinton causes. Rich had fled the country to avoid facing further prosecution.

It wasn’t just conservative media that took note of Pardongate. Even Time magazine was on the story, and gave a fairly thorough accounting of the pardons-for-cash scandal that followed the Clintons out of the White House door.

This is why statements by Senator Hillary Clinton and her husband about Bush’s commutation of Libby’s sentence are outrageously hypocritical. Bill Clinton said that the Bush administration believes “that they should be able to do what they want to do, and that the law is a minor obstacle.” Hillary Clinton stated that “This was clearly an effort to protect the White House….There isn’t any doubt now. What we know is that Libby was carrying out the implicit or explicit wishes of the vice president, or maybe the president as well, in the further effort to stifle dissent.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chimed in, declaring, “The President’s decision to commute Mr. Libby’s sentence is disgraceful. Libby’s conviction was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war…Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone.”

This is all partisan politics. I have written several columns and special reports explaining why the prosecution of Libby should never have taken place. These columns detail how Libby told the grand jury and the FBI that he first learned of the identity of Wilson’s wife from Dick Cheney, not from NBC’s Tim Russert or Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, or Matt Cooper of Time magazine.

Libby later on said that he remembered hearing it from Russert, thinking he was hearing it for the first time. But Russert said Libby never said a word about it to him. This disagreement, based on two different recollections, was transformed by Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald into evidence that Libby had lied. And Russert, even though he knew he would be a witness in the case, continued to comment on the story from the perch of his NBC “Meet the Press” show. He had to know that he was contributing to pre-trial publicity that would make it difficult for Libby to get a fair trial.

Liberal Media Myth

The idea that Libby was part of some campaign launched by Cheney to destroy Wilson is a liberal media myth. Bob Woodward, David Sanger of the New York Times, Evan Thomas, Walter Pincus, and other journalists who spoke with Libby during the same period all testified that he did not discuss Plame with them. Libby had no reason to lie about what he told Russert and had no reason to lie to protect Cheney. In fact, they had every legitimate reason to determine why Wilson had been sent on that mission and to explain to the press whose interests Wilson was serving. The CIA’s role in the Wilson trip, which resulted in Wilson’s New York Times column bashing the Bush Administration over Iraq, has never been completely investigated. Wilson’s wife Plame may have left the agency, but others who facilitated the Wilson junket are still there. This, plus evidence that Plame may have lied under oath before Congress about her role in her husband’s trip, deserve follow-up.

Wilson, appearing on MSNBC the night of the commutation, called this the most corrupt administration in history, from top to bottom, and accused various officials of treason. But Wilson has lost credibility even with the liberal media. The Washington Post editorialized last March that Wilson is a “blowhard” and that his accusations and explanations had largely been shown to be false. Their findings confirmed what they had previously reported in an article three years ago. In it, reporter Susan Schmidt had determined, based on a Senate intelligence report and her own reporting, that Wilson had not been telling the truth about a number of issues, including the critical issue of his wife’s role in his being picked for the mission.

An objective examination of the facts suggests that Libby should not have been prosecuted, should not have been found guilty, and that his convictions should be overturned on appeal. Bush’s commutation enables the process to continue.

Author’s note:

In a previous column, I wrote that, before the trial, Tim Russert talked about the Libby case on the air, in a form of pre-trial publicity, even though he was likely to be a witness, and “after the trial it became known that he had a relationship with one of the jurors, who had been a reporter for the Washington Post.”

I received an email from Neil Lewis, who had covered the case for the New York Times, saying that it had been known since jury selection that Russert had a relationship with that juror. I have double-checked the facts. Mr. Lewis is correct that the relationship had been written about at the time of jury selection in January. I should have said that Russert’s relationship with the juror was not widely known, and on that point I stand corrected. My review of stories and commentary indicates that many others were also surprised that the juror, Denis Collins, should have been allowed on the jury in view of his relationship with Russert. Collins, who wrote a book about the CIA, had worked for Bob Woodward and knew Walter Pincus, both of the Washington Post. Woodward and Pincus were both witnesses in the case.

Lewis didn’t comment on my point that Russert should not have used his position as an interviewer and commentator to weigh in on a case that he was to be a witness in. This was a clear violation of the journalistic ethics set down by the Society of Professional Journalists. They declare that a journalist should “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Nor did Lewis point to anything else factually wrong in my column.

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