In Front Of Our Nose


The Libby trial has proven to be high entertainment for the Beltway, if only because (so far), the case for Libby's perjury seems damn near impregnable. Maybe the defense will turn things around. But it has done something else, I think. Patrick Fitzgerald has been adamant about linking Libby's actions at almost every turn to his political master, Dick Cheney. So what, you might ask? You know the talking points: this is not even about a leak any more, it's about perjury; Libby wasn't the real culprit anyway - Armitage and Rove were; Plame wasn't really undercover anyway, etc etc. I tend to buy most of that but none of it explains what seems to me to be the central question of the case.

Why did Dick Cheney care so much about Joe Wilson? Wilson was, if he'll excuse me, a two-bit, irrelevant jerk in the grand scheme of things. His Niger report was not central to the WMD case; it would almost certainly have blown over as an issue; the Brits maintained their position that the uranium outreach was for real; even the White House climbed down on the SOTU wording eventually; the public didn't really care.

But Cheney cared. In fact, he cared terribly. He cared so much he risked outing a CIA agent, something he must have known was very dangerous - to both himself and his cronies. He is no fool and has been around Washington for a long time. He knew the risks, and he took them anyway. While the insurgency was first beginning to take off in Iraq, Cheney was far more focused on fighting a petty Beltway skirmish in the press over a petty issue in the recent past.

Why? There are only two plausible explanations I can think of for the disproportionate concern. The first is pure arrogance. Cheney thought of himself - and still does - as a sort of prince regent protecting the country from its enemies, arrogating to himself enormous and unconstitutional executive powers, assuring the world that the WMD evidence was watertight, declaring the insurgency in its "last throes", embracing the "dark side" of torture techniques for the good of all, and so on. Any querying of his position was an affront a man of his arrogance couldn't tolerate - even if it meant risking a huge amount to squash a political bug the size of Wilson.

The alternative explanation is that Cheney was scared - so scared he took a huge risk that eventually led to the loss and public humiliation of his most trusted aide, Scooter Libby. But why would he be scared? The most plausible inference is that he knew he had deliberately rigged the WMD evidence to ensure that the war took place. He knew, even if the president was blithely convinced otherwise, that the WMD evidence was weak, and his success in distorting the evidence was threatened by Wilson. Not that Wilson had all the goods - Cheney must have known this was a minor matter. It was the danger that journalists or skeptics pulling on the thread that Wilson represented could get closer to the much bigger truth of WMD deception. This is a huge deal for one single reason: if true, it means that the White House acted in bad faith in making the case for war. There is no graver charge than that. In fact, if true, it's impeachable. I don't want to believe it. But I find it increasingly plausible that this is what Patrick Fitzgerald smells in the Libby case. He can't prove it yet; he may never prove it. But he's getting warmer; and he won't give up.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty.)