What The Plame Affair Tells Us About Bush's Character

So Bush will spare I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby jail time for his perjury. Could this surprise anyone? Libby, as Dick Cheney's former deputy, truly knows where the bodies are buried - and given what we know of Cheney's role in formulating the torture policies at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and various "black" prisons in Eastern Europe and the Arab world, that is not necessarily a figure of speech. Libby was never looking at hard time; he'd have gone to a country club prison. But why would Bush take a chance on him squealing?

What's been hilarious throughout the entire political smear-and-perjury debacle has been watching the right wingers attempt to portray Libby and Cheney as patriotic victims. By now we all know that the Administration, led by Bush, quite consciously and intentionally decided to destroy the reputation and career of Joseph Wilson, a man who went public with evidence that the Administration was using bad information to make the case for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction; and that, ironically for an administration that hates transparency and sunlight like the plague, Bush directed Libby to do this by releasing highly classified national security information for political gain.

The upshot, of course, was that Libby, with Bush's general if not - so far as we know - specific blessing, exposed Wilson's wife Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent, an act that was considered treason by many within the CIA itself. The exposure of Plame ruined a covert front operation that had cost the CIA (that is, the US taxpayer) millions to set up, and may well have endangered the lives of other covert agents abroad. One of the most blackly hilarious aspects of this whole disgrace has been the spectacle of Republican politicians defending the Administration on the grounds that Libby and Karl Rove, who also leaked the information about Plame, did not necessarily know that she was a covert agent (in fact she was). What, so these hyper-patriotic government officials were not expected to check before releasing information that could do massive national security damage?

According to respected Washington reporters David Corn of The Nation and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek in their book "Hubris: the Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War," Plame was the chief of operations for the CIA's Joint Task Force on Iraq, which "mount[ed] espionage operations to gather information on the WMD programs Iraq might have" - while publicly employed by Brewster-Jennings & Associates, a "legal services office." To clarify, then: punishing those who exposed its faulty evidence for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was more important to the Bush Administration than actually gathering solid evidence on the existence - or, more to the point, non-existence - of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

At the right-wing National Review, Byron York has expended oceans of virtual ink in attempting to show that Plame herself had recommended Wilson for his fact-finding trip to Niger, in the course of which he gathered evidence that exposed as a hoax the Administration's line that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase uranium yellowcake from that country. The effort that York has put into this line of attack is just pathetic. So what? There may have been some nepotism involved, which is bad. Does it change the fact that the administration was willing - intent on - playing politics with national security? Libby, instructed by Cheney, used a strategy of discrediting Wilson by suggesting to the media that Wilson's trip was an insider junket. If this were true, would the yellowcake story also be true? Would a nepotistic junket justify exposing a covert agent, destroying an elaborate front operation and putting other agents at risk?

Libby misled Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about the chronology and personnel of the Administration's smear campaign against Wilson and Plame. This is called perjury, and it's what got him jail time. It's been especially infuriating to hear from the right that there was "no underlying crime," (since no one was convicted of leaking national security information) and that therefore there's no real substance to the whole matter (the Wall Street Journal's editors, who unlike the partisan hacks at the Weekly Standard should know better, have been particularly disingenuous here. But not as disingenuous as the Times' David Brooks, utterly ridiculous and counterfactual.) So let me get this straight: convicting Libby of perjury for lying under oath about his role in politicizing national security is a liberal witch-hunt, but impeaching Bill Clinton for lying under oath about a consensual sexual relationship was a noble cause.

But that isn't what I want to talk about today.

What's new, today, is Bush's inevitable commutation of Libby's sentence. And what's interesting about it is its contingent nature. A commutation of a sentence is not a pardon. If Bush really believes that Libby did nothing wrong, if really believes that he is a good man caught up in a skewed judicial process (which would be, after all, the only legitimate reason for interfering with his sentence; I mean, Bush is not publicly justifying this by saying, "I have to pardon him because he did dirty deeds for me and because he knows too much about other things that went on in my administration") then common decency would demand that Bush give Libby a full pardon. But Bush isn't brave enough for that. Faced with deep public suspicion and some of the lowest polling numbers ever recorded for a modern president, Bush sprung Libby from jail, but didn't erase his conviction. Libby is still saddled with a quarter-million dollar fine (which the Republican faithful will soon pay off for him.) More seriously, Libby will be on probation for two years and will always carry the legal and social stigma of being a convicted felon. This former high-powered corporate lawyer, a player at the highest levels, may never be able to practice law again.

So Bush did just enough for his faithful colleague to save his own behind, while minimizing the political fallout. It would be hard to ask for a better example of his narcissism, his sense of his own specialness that goes beyond loyalty to others, beyond duty, beyond the law, beyond national security.

And certainly beyond accountability. Bush's act of moral cowardice, his determination to avoid the full political consequences of his cynical, self-serving actions, is of a piece with the original decision to go after Wilson at the expense of the national interest. Unfortunately for the nation, Bush's low character is reflected in practice and policy at every level of his administration.