Lowball, all the way around

Posted: Apr 13, 2006 12:05 AM

On Tuesday, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had to take back a key sentence in a brief he had filed earlier with the court concerning charges against Scooter Libby, former top aide to Veep Dick Cheney, for perjury and obstruction of justice in the investigation into who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. That sentence had spawned a spate of page-one Bush-bad stories.
Fitzgerald had written that President Bush had authorized Libby to tell former New York Times reporter Judith Miller about intelligence involving Saddam Hussein's attempts to procure enriched uranium in Niger, and that Libby understood he should tell Miller that an official "key judgment" affirmed the Niger story -- even though the Niger item wasn't a "key judgment" and some administration officials disputed the Niger angle. "Iraq Findings Leaked by Aide Were Disputed" read the New York Times headline.

 Fitzgerald then corrected the record to read that Libby understood he could tell Miller about "key judgments" in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and that the NIE reported that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium.

 Bush-haters had pounced on the Fitzgerald brief to bolster the "Bush Lied" big lie. It starts with Ambassador Joseph Wilson's contention that the Bushies were out to punish his wife, Plame, because Wilson's New York Times op-ed piece debunked the Niger charge. The Niger story was patently false, those who accept the big lie theory say -- and the Bushies knew it.

 It doesn't speak well that Fitzgerald bought into that Bush-hater spin when he wrote of the Bushies' attempts to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" Wilson. No. The Bushies weren't looking to hurt the little woman, but were waging an honest challenge to the truth-impaired Wilson and his false denial that his wife had anything to do with the CIA sending him to Niger, as well as reports that Cheney sent Wilson to Niger.

 Most importantly: The Niger story has not proven to be false. There is good reason to believe Iraq didn't get uranium from Niger, but had tried to. The United Kingdom's Butler Commission found the Niger story to be "well-founded." Ditto a Senate Intelligence Committee report. Or, as The Washington Post editorialized on Sunday, "The (NIE) material that Mr. Bush ordered declassified established, as have several subsequent investigations, that Mr. Wilson was the one guilty of twisting the truth. In fact, his report supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium."

 In short, Bush was right to say in his 2003 State of the Union Address, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Niger."

 It's not even clear that the leak of Plame's name was a crime. As prominent GOP attorney Victoria Toensing noted, the government has to establish that Plame was covert and that the Bushies knew it. Fitzgerald positively runs from that issue. He wrote in last week's brief, "Defendant is not charged with knowingly disclosing classified information."

 Toensing added that Fitzgerald's refusal to release the CIA criminal referral that started the investigation to Libby's attorneys should set off your bells and whistles.

 The worst of it is, as Toensing lamented, this whole mess was "absolutely avoidable." If the Bushies had simply been up front and admitted they were assailing Wilson's credibility -- or if they'd just kept their mouths shut -- there probably would be no special prosecutor looking into the Plame leak, burning through unknown amounts of tax dollars and setting a dangerous precedent by jailing a journalist for not revealing her sources.

 Dubya has fallen into the same trap that ensnared Bill Clinton. After Paula Jones sued Clinton for sexual harassment, Clinton should have refused to be deposed. Yes, some on the right would have slammed Bubba, but, in the end, Judge Susan Webber Wright would have thrown out the lawsuit -- as she did in 1998 -- because Jones failed to establish economic damages. Had Clinton kept mum, he would not have lied under oath, America would have been spared the dirty details on his sex life and the House would not have impeached him.

 In this case, Libby is facing charges not for leaking, but for covering up the leak. I'm not saying the Bush administration was victimized by Bush-haters. This brouhaha was self-inflicted. This is what happens when the Bush administration chooses the lowball route -- that is, to let anonymous surrogates make the attack and then play dumb -- instead of challenging critics head-on.

 Team Bush was so busy trying to pretend his administration doesn't fight back, that it did its political enemies' work for them.