Right sees a prosecution run amok

Times Staff Writer

The perjury conviction of former senior White House advisor I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was condemned as a “travesty” and a “politicized prosecution” by much of the conservative media Wednesday.

As the critics on the right saw it, an overzealous prosecutor, unable to find evidence of a real crime, turned what a Wall Street Journal editorial called a “trivial matter” into a high-profile criminal case. The Journal editorial accused Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald of “criminalizing political differences. For that, in essence, is what this case is really all about.”

“A good man has paid a very heavy price for the Left’s fevers [and] the media’s scandal-mongering,” the editors of the National Review wrote of Libby in a posting on the magazine’s website. “Justice demands that [President] Bush issue a pardon and lower the curtain on an embarrassing drama that shouldn’t have lasted beyond its opening act.”

Amid this fervor, some veterans of an earlier political drama -- President Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s -- were amused by their political opponents’ new views of the significance of perjury and obstruction of justice.


“They thought it was OK for prosecutors to pursue the president for lying about sex, and now they think it’s unfair to prosecute someone in the White House for lying to a grand jury about outing a CIA agent,” Lanny J. Davis, Clinton’s special counsel during that time, said Wednesday. “This is not just hypocritical. It is comical.”

If nothing else, the reaction to the Libby verdict shows again that it’s hard to separate law and politics in Washington’s dramas.

After the Iran-Contra scandal broke in 1986, independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, a Republican, brought criminal charges against officials of the Reagan White House.

Supporters of the prosecution, including leading Democrats, said it was important to learn the truth about the scheme -- in which the government secretly sold missiles to Iran and used the proceeds to fund anticommunist rebels in Nicaragua -- and to punish the officials who had lied during congressional hearings.

Critics of the prosecution, including many Republicans, called Walsh overzealous and accused him of criminalizing a dispute over foreign policy.

In 1991, a closely divided Senate was about to vote on Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court when liberal activists leaked word that a former aide, Anita Hill, had once accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas vehemently and repeatedly denied that he had behaved improperly. In the televised hearings that followed, Republicans and Democrats squared off, taking diametrically opposed views of who was telling the truth and who was lying.

The he-said/she-said nature of the dispute, played out before the Senate Judiciary Committee, meant that either Hill or Thomas apparently committed perjury under oath. Despite that, the Senate confirmed Thomas by a 52-48 vote, and the matter was dropped.

In 1998, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr urged the House to impeach Clinton for lying during a deposition about a sexual relationship with a White House intern.


Republican lawmakers insisted that perjury under oath warranted removing the president from office; Democrats charged that the investigation and the impeachment were driven by politics.

Clinton was impeached on a party-line vote in the House, but he was acquitted by the Senate.

The case against Libby arose from an investigation into whether any laws were broken when syndicated columnist Robert Novak revealed the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA officer who specialized in weapons of mass destruction, in July 2003. Novak’s column appeared in newspapers eight days after Plame’s husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, went public with his criticism of the Bush White House over its use of intelligence to justify the Iraq war.

The year before, at the CIA’s request, Wilson, a retired ambassador who had served in several African nations during a lengthy Foreign Service career, had looked into allegations that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger, and found them groundless.


According to testimony at Libby’s trial, administration officials were outraged by Wilson’s public criticism and sought to cast doubt on his conclusions by suggesting to reporters that his wife may have been involved in arranging his trip -- a point Novak raised in his column.

Conservative critics countered that Libby was prosecuted not for leaking Plame’s name -- in fact, no one has been charged with that -- but for denying under oath that he had spoken to reporters about her. As the Journal saw it, Libby “was convicted of telling the truth about Mr. Wilson and Ms. Plame to some reporters but then not owning up to it” when he was put under oath.

For his part, Bush had a subdued reaction to the verdict. “This was a lengthy trial on a serious matter, and a jury of his peers convicted him,” he said Wednesday in an interview with CNN en Espanol. “And we’ve got to respect that conviction.”

Asked about the possibility of offering a presidential pardon, as George H.W. Bush did for several aides to President Reagan in the Iran-Contra scandal, Bush deflected comment. “It’s inappropriate for me, or the administration, to be issuing comments about this serious matter,” he said.


But plenty of legal activists weighed in.

“Perjury is a powerful prosecution tool -- one that was abused here,” Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at George Mason University, wrote in an op-ed piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. Since Fitzgerald knew that Libby was not the source for Novak’s disclosure of Plame’s name and employer, he should not have pressed ahead with the prosecution, argued Rotunda, who was a legal advisor to Starr during the Clinton impeachment.

“I think perjury is a serious crime,” Rotunda said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “If people lie, they ought to be prosecuted. But what I’m saying is we should be worried about prosecutors doing things like this.”

Davis, the former Clinton advisor, said it was “shameless hypocrisy” for Starr’s supporters to minimize a conviction for lying to a grand jury.


“But I also have sympathy for Scooter Libby,” Davis added. “What he was doing in the White House was not too different from what I was doing. He was pushing back on a story.

“But they shouldn’t have gone after Wilson’s wife,” he said. “They should have gone after Wilson directly and done it in public.”



Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.