White House officials need a new Scooter Libby strategy. He’s a one-man wrecking ball of disclosure. From now until his perjury and obstruction of justice trial is over, he will be swinging through the West Wing, knocking down walls and reputations. Libby couldn’t stop this destruction even if he wanted to. He has given hours of testimony about the most secret and inner workings of the Bush administration before the grand jury investigating the CIA leak, and now those words are starting to cause havoc. Wednesday, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald disclosed that Libby told the grand jury that in 2003, Vice President Cheney told him President Bush had authorized Libby to divulge intelligence on Iraq to reporters. At worst the disclosure makes Bush look like a hypocrite. Even at best, it distracts the president and his aides from trying to salvage immigration reform, promote a health-care plan, and take credit for a strong economy.
At the moment, the administration strategy is to duck questions. This is not working. They can’t avoid the questions because they’re too damaging to ignore. In public, White House officials have stuck to their traditional position: They will not comment on matters related to an ongoing legal proceeding. But then they do comment, asserting that the president has the ability to declassify information. This is an attempt to half-answer questions raised by the new Libby disclosures without being on the hook to answer any more. That’s because the other questions are much, much harder. If it’s perfectly above-board for Bush to declassify information, then why did Libby peddle that information in such a cloak-and-dagger way? (He asked Judith Miller to present the goods as coming from a “former Hill staffer,” a stretch just below saying “a little bird told me.”)
Now White House aides have to figure out if they are going to embrace Libby or ditch him. Up to this point, officials could skirt the Libby case by maintaining the position that Scooter was a dedicated, loyal, super-competent guy who was innocent until proven guilty. Conservatives whose testimonials fill Libby’s Web page have repeated this line, too. Supporters could frame the trial as Libby v. the press or Libby v. an overzealous prosecutor. In both tales, the vice president’s former top aide was the selfless hero and the enemy was up to no good. This was a safe thing to do because the allegations all concerned Libby’s behavior with investigators and the grand jury. The White House could support him without getting into the question of whether or not he was a liar.
Now the dynamic has changed. Libby’s claims are hurting the White House, which means his former colleagues probably want to discredit him. This is often the response to aides who go off the reservation. There was a hint of this yesterday from Bush allies. Why would anyone believe what Scooter Libby says about what the president did? After all, he’s up on perjury and obstruction charges and from what we know, his defense is implausible.
The problem with character assassination is that it does little to address Libby’s underlying claim. It is also disturbingly reminiscent of the tarring of Joe Wilson that caused the Plame affair to begin with.
It’s also hard for administration officials to now run down a guy whom they’ve talked up as being so solid. “I have worked with him for a long time, have enormous regard for him,” said the vice president. “Scooter Libby is one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known. He has given many years of his life to public service and has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction.”
The information that Scooter Libby passed to Judith Miller—perhaps on the president’s orders—was eventually made public to everyone. That White House shadow campaign didn’t work. Perhaps that should be a lesson for how to deal with Libby now: Answer the questions raised by the ongoing investigation. The alternative is to try to half-answer and shape the story on background. That only repeats the mistakes that got us here in the first place.