Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Importance of Convicting Libby

Weighing in on the felony conviction of Irwin Lewis “Scooter” Libby, formerly his Chief of Staff at the rogue federal agency he has made of the vice presidency, Dick Cheney has burped up yet another instance of his dominant approach to politics and to life: reality is what I say it is.

Again drooling bile from both sides of his crooked smirk, Cheney told an interviewer that he supported George W. Bush’s decision to commute the jail portion of Libby’s sentence for perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to federal investigators—but that, contrary to Bush’s public remarks, he disagreed that the jury should have convicted Libby of any crime.

The importance of the Libby conviction is that a jury was persuaded to hold one of the most powerful officials of the Bush White House accountable for violating at least some of the laws they swore an oath to uphold.

That was a first. Until the Libby verdict, powerful officials including Cheney, Bush and their top lieutenants, had been able to violate several such laws with impunity. This was the first time a jury of their peers had a chance to draw the line. And they did.

Not that Libby’s was the worst violation. And certainly there were more immediate players who should have been prosecuted for intentionally blowing Valerie Plame’s 20-year CIA cover to conceal lies about their rationale for invading Iraq. Cheney, Karl Rove and Richard Armitage were all involved earlier and more extensively than Libby was. And the Special Prosecutor never gave an adequate public accounting for not pursuing them.

But at least the conviction sends a message to Bush-Cheney & Company that there can be criminal sanctions when they violate criminal statutes.

Previous juries sent a similar message to the Reagan administration when they convicted John Poindexter and Oliver North for their crimes during the Iran-Contra affair. Unfortunately, the message was muted when an appeals court overturned the convictions because their prior testimony before Congress might have compromised their 5th Amendment rights at trial.

George W’s commutation of Libby’s jail time at least leaves the message intact. Several legal scholars argued in op-ed pieces after the sentencing that 30 months of jail time, while within the mandatory sentencing guidelines that Republicans normally cheer, unfairly made Libby the fall guy for too many others who deserved to be in cells. By retaining the substantial fine and the other non-jail penalties of the sentence, Bush at least gave token acknowledgment that the president and his aides are not exempt from the criminal justice system.

That, of course, is too much for neocon true believers to abide. By challenging Libby’s conviction, Cheney at once panders to their belief that the law applies to commoners but not to them, bolsters that belief with his raw political power, and tempts Bush to renege on his own oath of office in order to keep all of his operatives immune from prosecution, no matter how many criminal laws they break.

As former Vice President Walter Mondale notes in an op-ed piece published today, this is par for the course for Cheney. Mondale argues that the vice presidency was a constitutional afterthought. Aside from providing a president-in-reserve and a presider for the Senate, the vice president has no authority except that which the president delegates to him. Bush has allowed Cheney to create a secret, largely independent power center, restricting the questions Bush will see to those decided by Cheney’s staff, pursuing Cheney’s separate agenda, accountable neither to Bush nor Congress. Bush could do himself and the country a huge favor by putting a stop to Cheney before his antics get any worse.

Desperate for any legacy beyond his “reign of error” (as columnist Paul Krugman dubs his presidency to date), maybe George W. will not cave. But his track record gives little reason to hope.

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