Scooter Libby’s memory wasn’t bad enough. The vice president’s former chief of staff was convicted Tuesday on two counts of perjury, one count of obstruction of justice, and one count of making false statements. He had claimed that he did not try to mislead investigators looking into the leak of a CIA agent’s identity and that any misstatements he made in his grand-jury testimony or FBI interviews were the result of faulty recollections. The jury didn’t buy it. As the forewoman answered “guilty” to the judge’s questions for four of the five counts, Libby looked straight ahead. He didn’t grimace. He didn’t wince. He didn’t look at his wife, who wept in the front row where she had sat for the entire trial. A lawyer sitting next to Libby’s wife put his arm around her.
Afterward Denis Collins, the former Washington Post reporter on the jury, said the deliberating jurors often wondered about the role of the White House in general and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove in particular. Collins said that “a number of times” the jury asked themselves, “What is he doing here? Where is Rove and all these other guys? … I’m not saying we didn’t think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of. It seemed like he was … the fall guy.” Collins said the jury believed that Vice President Cheney did “task [Libby] to talk to reporters.” He said, “Some jurors said at one point, ‘We wish we weren’t judging Libby. … This sucks.’ “
The jury has convicted Libby, but Collins has convicted the administration. Libby was being a good soldier, lying and obstructing justice to protect himself, the vice president, and the administration from political embarrassment or legal jeopardy.
President Bush heard the news in the Oval Office, a day before embarking on a trip to Latin America. It is a good week for him to be heading out of town, what with fresh violence in Iraq and the Walter Reed uproar. And a number of the reporters who rushed into the Libby courtroom had come from covering the congressional hearings on the U.S. attorneys’ purge.
It took the seven women and four men 10 days to work their way through the mountain of evidence and 128 pages of jury instructions. They filled 34 poster-size pages with information they distilled from the trial testimony. As Libby’s lawyers repeatedly pointed out, there was no direct evidence that Libby lied. No one testified that he told them he had. There was no scrap of paper or other hard evidence that proved he was guilty. But there was tonnage. The prosecution presented so many instances in which Libby had discussed the information he claimed to have forgotten that the jury decided that no human’s memory could be as spectacularly and precisely as bad as he claimed. “Libby was told about Mrs. Wilson [Valerie Plame] nine times,” said Collins. “We believed he did have a bad memory … but it seemed very unlikely he would not remember about being told about Mrs. Wilson … so many times.”
Libby was able to recollect with precision when he wanted to. About some matters, his testimony to the grand jury was more accurate than that of other witnesses. But when it came to the identity of administration critic Joseph Wilson’s wife, his memory took on magical qualities. Prosecutors presented evidence that Libby had nine different discussions about Plame with colleagues and reporters, all of which he claimed to have forgotten. “It wasn’t just a he-said/she-said case,” Patrick Fitzgerald had said in closing arguments. “It is a he-said, he-said, she-said, he-said, he-said, she-said, he-said, he-said, he-said.”
The information Libby claimed to have forgotten was just too juicy and meaningful to pop so completely and so cleanly out of his brain. Plame’s identity was explosive information. During the trial the jury was given several demonstrations of how extraordinary other Washington types found it. Cheney connected the dots immediately when he heard Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. “Did his wife send him on a junket?” he scribbled in the margins of a newspaper article. When former Time reporter Matt Cooper heard about it from Karl Rove, he told colleagues the information was so powerful it had to be conveyed on “double super secret background.” Counselor to the president Dan Bartlett read about Plame’s identity in a memo while on Air Force One and exclaimed it out loud like he had bingo.
Libby could be sentenced to a maximum of about 25 years in prison and fined up to $1.25 million, though sentencing guidelines could reduce his jail time to one to three years. Libby is the highest-ranking White House official to be convicted of a felony since the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s. Will he get a pardon, as Caspar Weinberger did in that case? Who knows? If he gets a pardon, it will suggest the president is rewarding him for taking a fall for the White House and the vice president. If he doesn’t, it will suggest that President Bush, who said he was sad for the Libby family, isn’t sad enough.