Scooter Libby has been indicted today on five counts (one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements). He has resigned. Note that an indictment contains only charges and is not evidence of guilt. Libby is presumed innocent and is entitled to a fair trial; the prosecution has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Looking at the big context of this indictment, there are four distinct allegations of wrong-doing that have been levelled against Libby (as well as Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and others).
1. Knowingly revealing the name of a covert CIA agent.
Libby has not be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act or the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which is what the Special Prosecutor was originally established to investigate. It has been said that, in Valerie Plame’s case, the importance of this is exaggerated, as she was not under cover in the field at the time. But if we take seriously the idea that the US is at war, and that intelligence is at the centre of the war effort, exposing a US agent would be a serious charge. During the second world war a Government official who had revealed the name of a secret agent would have been shot for treason. (This blog claims that at least one CIA agent died as a result of Valerie Plame being unmasked. If so, that would be rather serious.)
2. Misleading the country about the case for war in Iraq.
Scooter Libby was briefing the media about Joseph Wilson because Wilson alleged that the Administration had exaggerated the case for war. In particular, the US and UK Governments had claimed that Iraq was trying to get nuclear materials from Niger. It is said that this was part of a wider effort, under the auspices of the White House Iraq Group, to ‘market’ the case for war. The popular blog Huffington Post concludes on this basis: "I’m not saying that Plamegate is the same as Watergate. I’m saying it’s worse. Much, much worse. No one died as a result of Watergate, but 2,000 American soldiers have now been killed and thousands more wounded to rid the world of an imminent threat that wasn’t." Of course, it is not, in itself, illegal to have given a misleading account of the case for war in Iraq, though it may turn out to be politically damaging.
3. Misleading the media and the public about what they knew about Valerie Plame.
Is is alleged that Vice President Cheney may have misled the press, and thus the American public, about what they knew and when they knew it about the decision to send Joseph Wilson to Niger. According to the New York Times, Mr Cheney told NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sept. 14, 2003 "I don’t know who sent Joe Wilson.", some three months after Mr. Cheney had been told that Valerie Plame was employed by the CIA and may have helped arrange her husband’s trip. Again, this is not a crime, though it may be politically damaging.
4. Perjury and making false statements
This is what Scooter Libby has actually been charged with. If found guilty on all five counts in the indictment, he faces a maximum of 30 years in prison and a $1.25m fine for each charge.
Now you don’t have to be a political geek to know that it is always the cover up that does you. In America, the articles of impeachment of Nixon over Watergate scandal related to the attempted cover up; and the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton rested on his efforts to cover up his affair with a White House intern.
In the UK, the resignations of David Blunkett and Peter Mandelson (twice), and the imprisonment of Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, were the result of their attempt to cover up, not the original wrongdoing.
So the question is, why do they do it? They must know that their eventual downfall lies in the attempt to cover up their mistakes. So once the investigation begins, why don’t politicians and officials just tell the truth?
I have a hypothesis about the answer to this. It is hard to prove, but it is the only rational explanation I can come up with. The reason that politicians and officials would risk their careers, and sometimes their liberty, by covering up mistakes and wrong-doing is that most of the time they get away with it.
Our politicians are making the following call: the expected cost of lying and perjury – a small chance of a catastrophic outcome (in this case, 30 years in prison) – is less than the expected cost of coming clean every time something goes wrong. And if they are right, this means that they must be getting away with it rather a lot.
Does anyone have a better explanation?
Regular readers will note that there appears to be an inconsistency between this and my view (expressed here) that politicians – at least in the UK – are generally decent people. I do not think these are necessarily contradictory: it might be that only a small number of politicians and officials are engaged in this sort of cover-up, and it is just that group for whom the calculus above applies.