The Washington Post weeps for Scooter Libby

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

If it weren't for the soothing tones of The Washington Post's opinion pages, I'm not sure how I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby would sustain himself in his hour of need. The paper's editorialists have been instrumental in bucking Libby up, reassuring him time and again that his conviction in connection with the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation was a wild miscarriage of justice and the result of an out-of-control prosecutor.

If it weren't for the soothing tones of The Washington Post's opinion pages, I'm not sure how I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby would sustain himself in his hour of need. The paper's editorialists have been instrumental in bucking Libby up, reassuring him time and again that his conviction in connection with the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation was a wild miscarriage of justice and the result of an out-of-control prosecutor.

Post columnist Richard Cohen became the latest to rush to Libby's wounded side, calming the convicted felon, insisting he had been hit by a "runaway train," engineered by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.

As Libby and his bevy of attorneys now scramble to avoid a go-to-jail date for perjury, obstructing justice, and lying to federal investigators, it's clear Libby, an architect of the Iraq war, has achieved martyrdom status on the Post's editorial and opinion pages. (And yes, both Cohen and the Post editorial page backed the war with Iraq.)

Indeed, with his column, Cohen simply joined the Post's long-running Libby procession, attacking the investigation, demanding a halt to Libby's persecution, and confidently predicting his complete acquittal.

Note the choice words and phrases used by Post columnists, editorial writers, and contributors to describe Fitzgerald's pursuit of Libby:

"train wreck"

"silliness"

"A game"

"overblown"

"Tempest in a teapot"

"sideshow"

"an injustice"

"remarkable for its lack of substance"

"a huge, dangerous waste of time"

"nuts"

"bankrupt"

"farce"

"excessive"

" should not have been conducted in the first place"

"an injustice"

"misguided"

"Fitzgerald's Folly"

I'm nervous Post opinion writers are this close to organizing noisy sidewalk protests on Libby's behalf.

Meanwhile, searching through the Nexis news database going back more than 40 months, I cannot find a single outside contributor who was invited by the newspaper to write a piece that included sustained criticism of Libby during the scandal. Since the Plame story broke big in September 2003, the Post has likely published more than 1,000 guest columns on all sorts of topics. None, however, was built around criticizing Libby or cheering Fitzgerald's investigation. Not one.

By contrast, the newspaper has employed something of an open-door policy for outside contributors who want to use the paper's opinion pages to belittle the Fitzgerald investigation, wallow in pity for Libby, and purposefully misstate the facts of the case. (More on that later.)

Not that the Post is alone. Conservative opinion outlets have been wailing about the unjust fate Libby has suffered, how unprincipled Fitzgerald is, and how the Republican-appointed federal judge, Reggie Walton, botched the case. Some have even compared Libby, who assiduously avoided military service himself, with being a "fallen comrade," whom President George Bush cannot leave behind on the battlefield. (For some reason, Libby's sob mob won't attack the citizen jurists who, after hearing the evidence for weeks, promptly found Libby guilty. Also unmentioned is the fact that nearly 70 percent of Americans don't think Libby should receive a presidential pardon. That nugget gets in the way of the rogue prosecutor talking points.)

But why? Why has the Post gone all-in on a loser of a case like Libby's? Why the waving of the arms, the name-calling, and the almost comical rhetoric in defense of a relatively straightforward white-collar crime? I think the uproar is more cultural than political (or even legal). It's a class thing. The Washington Establishment, which the Post has dutifully represented for generations, identifies with Libby -- empathizes with him -- and is aghast at the idea that he might have to serve jail time for merely practicing the "dark art of politics," as Cohen described it.

As Glenn Greenwald noted at Salon last week:

The real injustice is that prison is simply not the place for the most powerful and entrenched members of the Beltway royal court, no matter how many crimes they commit. There is a grave indignity to watching our brave Republican elite be dragged before such lowly venues as a criminal court and be threatened with prison, as though they are common criminals or something. How disruptive and disrespectful and demeaning it all is.

Yet what's absolutely essential to note here is that during the previous Democratic administration, the same Washington Establishment, led by the apoplectic Post, turned on President Clinton when he was caught practicing his own version of the "dark art of politics" (i.e. lying about his sex life).

At the time, the Post's society reporter Sally Quinn famously (and sympathetically) documented how Beltway insiders resented, in starkly personal terms, Clinton's rogue behavior. "He came in here and he trashed the place, and it's not his place," Post columnist David Broder told Quinn. The article stressed it was the lying that most offended the Establishment members.

To date, I have not read an extended exegesis in the Post about how the D.C. Establishment players -- pundits, diplomats, attorneys, and lobbyists -- feel betrayed by the multitude of lies Bush told prior to invading Iraq. In fact, it's been just the opposite, with the Post ferociously defending Libby, despite his conviction for repeatedly telling war-related lies.

The hypocrisy -- the glaring double standard -- simply highlights the intellectual bankruptcy at play. And perhaps nowhere has that factual impoverishment been more apparent than in the opinion pages of the Post. (Sadly, the behavior on the opinion pages has overshadowed some of the insightful work the Post's news team has produced while covering the Plame story.)

For instance, back on April 9, 2006, the editorial page aggressively defended Bush's decision in 2003 to declassify parts of the National Intelligence Estimate in order to explain to reporters why the administration believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) prior to the war. It was Libby who was given the task of then huddling with a friendly reporter (paging Judith Miller) to spin the administration's explanation for war. The Post editorial, under the headline, "A Good Leak," assured readers, "There was nothing illegal or even particularly unusual about that."

Not true. According to a Fitzgerald court filing, Libby himself told investigators that he could not recall a single other instance during his entire career in public service "when he disclosed a document to a reporter that was effectively declassified by virtue of the President's authorization that it be declassified."

In a June 10 Post column, David S. Broder claimed that Libby was charged for "denying to the FBI and the grand jury that he had discussed the Wilson case with reporters."

Not true. Libby admitted in his FBI interviews and in grand jury testimony that he had discussed the Wilson case with reporters.

Post columnist and knee-jerk White House defender Charles Krauthammer this year wrote that Bush should have pardoned Libby "long before this egregious case came to trial." A presidential pardon granted before a verdict is returned? Now that's creative -- pardons are not supposed to be considered until five years after the date of conviction. But Krauthammer's ignorance of federal pardon guidelines simply represented the level of legal debate taking place on the pages of the Post regarding the Libby case.

The Post's hacktacular Victoria Toensing

I mean, just look at what Victoria Toensing has been writing. A hyper-Republican partisan who served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration and who overstayed her green room welcome during the 1990s as she relentlessly campaigned, via cable news channels, to run President Clinton out of office for lying about his sex life, Toensing became the Post's go-to Libby expert. Not once but twice the Post turned to Toensing as a legal expert, oblivious to the fact that she simply created her own sets of Libby trial facts.

For instance, Toensing's February 18 essay this year about the Libby case should never have been published by a serious newspaper. The piece was painfully unserious -- hacktacular, really. From the very opening, Toensing deliberately misstated the facts, which was the only way the subsequent 2,200 words could have even stayed afloat.

Her angle was that since Libby was on trial for his role in the Plame scandal, then lots of other players should be as well: "If we accept Fitzgerald's low threshold for bringing a criminal case, then why stop at Libby?" For instance, Toensing wanted Fitzgerald "indicted" for granting former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer immunity. She wanted the media "indicted" for hypocrisy. She wanted the CIA "indicted" for allegedly writing up a "boilerplate" referral to the Justice Department for the initial Plame leak investigation.

Indict the media for hypocrisy? Keep in mind that the Post published Toensing's under the auspice that she was a legal expert.

When readers complained about the purposefully misleading essay that was dressed up as legal brief, Post editors harrumphed. Deborah Howell, the newspaper's ombudsman, asked associate editor Robert Kaiser about the piece. His condescending contempt for readers was hard to miss:

After 43 years at The Post, I know that many of our readers want us to do our jobs with the solemnity of monks and the propriety of Supreme Court justices, but I've never gotten the knack of either. I think good journalism should be provocative and fun.

Worse, Howell announced that Kaiser considered Toensing's piece to be a "huge success" because of "the many comments to [the ombudsman] that it provoked," as well as all the reader comments posted on the newspaper's website. That's right, a senior Post editor cheered that Toensing's piece was a "huge success" because lots of people wrote letters to the ombudsman and posted comments online. The fact that most of the correspondence filled up 40 pages of online comments detailing the falsehoods in Toensing's essay was of little interest to the Post hierarchy.

Toensing's foolery simply matched the standard she had set for herself in 2005 when she co-wrote an earlier Post op-ed, which of course attacked the Libby prosecution. Toensing's brash claim then was that no crime had been committed by outing the CIA agent because, at the time, Plame did not meet the strict specifications of being classified as an undercover agent when her name was first published in Robert Novak's syndicated column in July 2003. And Toensing should have know because she helped write the legislation that defined who was a covert agent was. The key specification for being considered covert, according to Toensing, was that "she must have been assigned to duty outside the United States currently or in the past five years."

So, had Plame been assigned to duty outside the United States five years prior to being outed? The truth is Toensing had no idea.

Well, now we do know. In a May court filing, Fitzgerald confirmed that at the time of the first White House leak in the summer of 2003, Plame "was a covert CIA employee for whom the CIA was taking affirmative measures to conceal her intelligence relationship to the United States." To this day, the Post editorial page has not acknowledged that central point, despite the fact it published several columns claiming, incorrectly, that Plame was not undercover.

Toensing actually earned bonus points for egregious flip-flopping. Remember, in January 2005 Toensing told Post readers no crime had been committed in the leak case because Plame was not "undercover." But in a January 2, 2004, Post news article, Toensing was quoted as saying no crime had been committed in the leak case because despite "the fact that she was undercover," her administration leakers might have not known it, which technically meant it was not against the law. [Emphasis added.] It seems obvious that opinion editors at the paper were oblivious to Toensing's bold flip-flop. Then again, the factual standards on the paper's opinion page seem rather low lately. The Post recently published a column by conservative Andrew Ferguson that mocked Al Gore's new book, Assault on Reason, because it does not have footnotes. In fact, the book contains 20 pages of endnotes.

Meanwhile, let's not forget the work of Post favorite Bruce Sanford, the Washington, D.C., attorney who was also tapped twice by opinion page editors to illuminate readers about the Libby case. Or, mislead readers, as the case may be. First, it was Sanford who teamed up with Toensing in 2005 to push the theory that Plame was not a covert agent, which meant the leak of her identity was not a crime. Sanford and Toensing were flat wrong there.

Post editors invited him back in 2006 to pontificate some more about the Libby case. On June 20, 2006, Sanford wrote, unequivocally, that Libby would be acquitted of all charges against him: "The futility will be evident in the acquittal next year of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice."

It got worse when Sanford detailed how it would be unfeasible for Fitzgerald to win a guilty verdict on charges of perjury:

It will be virtually impossible for the government to prove otherwise -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- when such a plausible defense exists and no conclusive evidence has emerged showing that his recollections of his contacts with journalists were intentionally false.

Oops.

Then during the trial, the Post invited conservative Byron York of the conservative National Review to write a piece -- echoing GOP talking points -- about how utterly confused he was that the trial wasn't actually about Plame's covert status. Of course, Fitzgerald had, more than a year before, patiently explained that the case was a straightforward prosecution of perjury and obstruction of justice. But York pretended to still be thoroughly baffled, and Post editorial editors were only too happy to print the misinformation.

And then there's Novak, whose syndicated column still appears in the Post. Newsweek confirmed that before Novak printed his infamous Plame column, he sent an advanced copy to longtime GOP lobbyist and Beltway insider Richard Hohlt, who then faxed it over to Karl Rove, "thereby giving the White House a heads up on the bombshell to come." A tip-off like that -- collusion, really -- would normally be a firing offense for most big-time newspaper columnists, or at least grounds for dropping that columnist's syndicated work. Yet the Post has taken no action against Novak.

When it comes to the Plame case, the Post, like Libby, remains in denial.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Stories/Interests
CIA Leak Investigation
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