Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Goose, the Gander and Libby

By Jay Ambrose

I don't get it. When Bill Clinton was in trouble for lying in a legal case, we were told that, oh, for Pete's sake, everyone lies.

But now, Lewis "Scooter" Libby has been sentenced to prison for lies. How can that be?

Of course, Clinton did take a hit. He was impeached by the House. But leftist scholars had told us that the constitutional criterion for evicting a president from office committing "high crimes and misdemeanors" was not satisfied by the crime of perjury for some reason, and the public seemed endlessly forgiving because, after all, sex was involved. You could almost hear a continental murmur: "There but for the grace of God go I."

So there was no eviction and, once Clinton was out of office and vulnerable to the criminal courts, no whisper of prosecution. It is true that, before his tenure was up, a federal judge found Clinton in contempt of court, ordering him to pay $90,000 for his lies, and that he later went along with the suspension of his license to practice law in Arkansas (which isn't exactly what he had been practicing in the first place). But that was about it, and Clinton has since been bouncing happily along.

It has been different with Libby, who has led a productive, important, decent life but made the mistake, first, of working for an unpopular vice president in Dick Cheney, a Republican, no less, and not so nice-seeming as Clinton, and, second, of running up against a fixated, Javert-like prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. This guy failed, you know. Fitzgerald set out to prove someone broke the law by leaking the classified identity of a CIA employee, but no law was broken, and he landed on the next best thing. That happened to be crucifying Libby for saying he had not done something that wasn't illegal anyway.

Did Libby knowingly lie during the investigation? As somebody whose own memory is far from what it used to be, I can almost believe that Libby may have suffered at least some lapses instead of engaging in outright fabrication. But the jury said he is guilty, and let's assume he is while also recalling what was going on here.

A former ambassador had said in a New York Times op-ed piece that the administration had misled the American people about Iraq trying to get uranium from Africa. The basis of his contention was a government-sponsored investigative trip that did not begin to demonstrate what he said it demonstrated. It turned out that his wife at the CIA had recommended his name for this trip in the first place. In Washington politics, when people come at you falsely and you discover behind-the-scenes facts that might illuminate what's really happening, you leak to the press.

It's an old game, and while there were claims of a CIA spy being dangerously "outed" in this case, that's a melodramatic, hyped-up interpretation of events at best.

Maybe a prosecutor looks at these circumstances and still says, you know, Libby really did obstruct the pursuit of justice and we need to make a statement about that. Then you learn that Fitzgerald knew even before the interrogation of Libby that the initial leak had another source, and you find yourself asking several questions. To what extent should we applaud anyone who uses the mighty apparatus of the federal government to keep bulldozing away until he can get a conviction of someone for something? Is that the kind of law enforcement we really want? And isn't a hanging judge's prison sentence of two and a half years wildly, even maliciously disproportionate to the offense?

Despite my disdain for much of the prattle in Clinton's defense, I thought eviction from the White House would have been disproportionate to his offense.

Yes, dishonest testimony subverts the means by which we arrive at just conclusions in court cases, and for Clinton to get off scot-free would have sent all sorts of wrong signals.

But he didn't. There were some consequences, including the impeachment. Libby, too, should face penalties of some sort, but not this, not 30 months in prison. This punishment is a travesty and an outrage.

Jay Ambrose is the former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers. He can be reached at

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