GADFLY: Fitz's Knuckle Ball

| October 30, 2005
The indictment of “Scooter” Libby, ONLY Scooter Libby, and ONLY on investigation- related charges (perjury, obstruction of justice, lying to investigators), is bound to be misinterpreted (read: spun), by ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum. Lefties (in addition to being disappointed that their favorite bete noire, Karl Rove, has seemingly evaded the prosecutor's net) will feel like some of the wind has been knocked out of their sails because no crime was charged in connection with the underlying revelation of Valerie Plame's identity (a key element in their assertion that such revelation was motivated by the need to discredit a vocal critic of administration's casus belli for the war--Iraq's possession or acquisition of nuclear weapons capability). And righties will revel in that same fact (i.e., since no crime was committed by the Plame outing, the outing was nothing more than a legitimate defense against the attack on the motivation for the war--in other words, politics as usual).

But, to continue Patrick Fitzgerald's somewhat tortured baseball analogy, there is no reason either for joy or sorrow in Mudville. Mighty Casey (a/k/a Fitzgerald) has, in essence, taken a base on balls, four (or, in Libby's case, five) lousy pitches, none of which he could really swing at, much less hit out of the park. And, just like a base on balls doesn't count as an at-bat, in some ways Fitz still hasn't stepped up to the plate. But, I suggest that what he may have done is to cork a bat for his next up.

Yesterday's indictment was dictated by time more than anything else. With the grand jury's term expiring today, if any indictment was going to be returned, this was the day, and I, for one, don't question Fitzgerald's statement that Libby's obstruction of the investigation prevented him from getting to the truth about the so-called “underlying” charges (e.g., those associated with outing a CIA operative). Indeed, the obstruction charged against Libby prevented the prosecutor from furnishing the one element of the underlying crimes that may be the most difficult to prove: mens rea, as it's known in the criminal law (i.e., a culpable state of mind). But, be assured: the last out in this game is still to come, and the indictment is a shot across the bow for a whole host of characters in this unfolding drama that should indicate to them sighs of relief would be premature.

First, we know that Fitz intends to continue the investigation, albeit with a new grand jury. That's no big deal, since the evidence that was presented to the first grand jury will be available, word-for-word and page-for-page, to the next one for their examination and, if necessary, for further elaboration or elucidation either by the prosecutor or by additional witnesses. In other words, the new grand jury won't be starting from scratch---not by a long shot.

Second, even the fact that Libby wasn't indicted for any of the possible classified-information-related offenses doesn't mean he still can't be, since the special prosecutor has the prerogative of getting a superseding indictment from the grand jury which is to follow (not unlike what the prosecutor in Texas did in Tom Delay's case). Thus, Libby is still, technically under the gun, and the indictment itself is rife with indications that there is another shoe yet to drop, something Fitz also strongly foreshadowed in his responses to reporters' questions during his press conference. And, of course, neither Rove nor any of a variety of other characters whose participation was described in shadowy terms are, as yet, off the hook

Under the applicable federal rule, indictments are only required to be a “plain, concise, and definite written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense charged.” The rule goes further to say indictments “need not contain a formal introduction or conclusion.”

The Libby indictment goes considerably beyond what the rule requires, or even envisions. It is what's called, in courthouse vernacular, a “speaking indictment.” The purpose of a “speaking” filing, in any court proceeding, is to show the other side some of the stronger cards you're holding in your hand, and this indictment is no exception.

The first 25 paragraphs of the indictment take great pains to lay out a factual scenario, replete with the identity (if not by name then by title) of the entire cast of characters, which, when carefully parsed, seems to set out the elements of at least one of the underlying classified information crimes, if not both. For example, the indictment indicates that the White House was well aware than Valerie Plame was a covert operative. Paragraph 9 states:

Libby was advised by the Vice President of the United States that Wilson’s wife worked at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Counterproliferation Division. Libby understood that the Vice President had learned this information from the CIA.

Anyone with knowledge of the CIA's organizational chart (but particularly Cheney and Libby) knows that the Counterproliferation Division is part of the CIA's Directorate of Operations (i.e., where the spooks are), and not where the more benign employees (e.g., analysts) are assigned. The indictment also makes it clear that Plame's status at the CIA was classified, and that disclosure of such status could jeopardize national security. Paragraph 13 of the indictment takes the guilty knowledge of Plame's status one step farther:

Libby spoke by telephone with his then Principal Deputy and discussed the article. That official asked Libby whether information about Wilson’s trip could be shared with the press to rebut the allegations that the Vice President had sent Wilson. Libby responded that there would be complications at the CIA in disclosing that information publicly, and that he could not discuss the matter on a non-secure telephone line.
The indictment makes it clear that Libby was authorized to have access to classified information (Paragraph 1), but also takes pains to point out not only that he was obligated not to disclose that information, but that he had signed a “Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement” the primary purpose of which was to let its signatories know, in no uncertain terms, that disclosure of classified information would be a big no-no.

Voila! All of the elements, at least of the Espionage Act (if not the Intelligence Identities Protection Act), have been made out in the indictment. So, why go to all the trouble of setting up the factual predicates for violations of the classified information statutes in the indictment (especially when he didn't have to) and then stop short of charging them? The explanation he gave during his press conference (i.e., that he was balancing the interests of the First Amendment with the wisdom of charging the crime) does't fly. Subpoenaing reporters, sending one to jail and threatening to do the same to another one demonstrate, I suggest, his less-than-overarching concern about the First Amendment. And, his expressed concern that the U.S. statute governing classified information not become subject to the loose application which has characterized its British analog (i.e., the “Official Secrets Act”) also rings hollow, especially given the fact that he trumpeted, loud and long, during his press conference the serious violations of national security the conduct in this case appears to have constituted.

No, the real reason to lay out as much factual detail as he did was for Fitz to show the world (and in particular, the world within the White House) that he has the goods, and that he won't hesitate to drop the dime on some additional malefactors, particularly, Cheney. Let's face it: Libby is only the consigliere to Cheney's don. Even though the threat of spending 30 years in the pokey will be a powerful incentive for Libby to cut some kind of deal that might include turning on his boss, the possibility of the additional charges of revealing classified information, particularly against Cheney, is even more powerful since, presumably, Cheney does't appear to be at risk of a truth-telling-related indictment.

Let's agree on something else right now: Libby's case will never get to trial, primarily because Bush and Cheney will never allow such a trial to become precisely the kind of exposé of the administration's motives and actions in the run-up to the war they were worried the indictments would constitute. It would be their worst nightmare to have their war machinations presented to a jury of 12 ordinary citizens in the District of Columbia (read: predominantly African Americans) who would be sitting as proxies for the families of 2,000 plus military fatalities in Iraq and the plurality of the country that opposes the war. The risk there is not just exposure to the possibility of conviction in Washington, D.C., but a subsequent prosecution in The Hague as well.

Yes, my friends, Fitz is about to grab the pine tar rag, choose another, very special, piece of lumber and step back into the on-deck circle for the home run that is sure to follow. Batter up!

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