The breathless waiting is over. Fitzmas Day has arrived. And those George W. Bush critics who have so eagerly anticipated it have to be a little disappointed.
There has been much high-minded talk about how the Valerie Plame controversy is really about the case for the Iraq war. No. For liberals, it has always been about inflicting as much damage as possible to the Bush White House, especially by taking out through indictment its most central player in the person of Karl Rove. That has not happened. Nor has special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald alleged a conspiracy at the top levels of the Bush administration to out a CIA agent. What he instead charges in his five-count indictment is that Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, lied to investigators about conversations with three reporters. This long-hyped, two-year investigation appears to come down, in other words, to one man’s alleged dishonesty when investigators came knocking. This is not Watergate or Iran-Contra, but neither is it a trifle.
Please spare us the excuses warmed over from Democratic talking points in the 1990s: the prosecutor is out-of-control, there was no underlying crime, etc., etc. It is the responsibility of anyone, especially a public official, to tell the truth to FBI agents and grand juries. If Libby didn’t, he should face the consequences. Fitzgerald’s indictment is not a Ronnie Earle-style partisan production, held together with scotch tape and malicious intentions. But this is the prosecutor’s day, when he gets to make the argument against his target unrebutted. Libby will get his chance to respond, and it might be that Fitzgerald’s case looks weaker soon.
But conservatives would be well-advised not to start slamming Fitzgerald. We don’t know all the facts and until we do, his acts are open to dueling interpretations. It seemed unfair for him to talk at his press conference of Libby damaging national security by revealing classified information, when Libby wasn’t charged with that. But this was a departure for the otherwise restrained and responsible Fitzgerald. The Bush administration, for its part, has conducted itself with notable forbearance in this case, avoiding the sort of smears that the Clinton administration routinely resorted to whenever a prosecutor proved inconvenient.
“Two years later, we still don’t know important facts.”
Fitzgerald’s merits aside, the limits of special-prosecutor investigations were once again evident in this case. Two years later, we still don’t know important facts. Was Plame covert? Fitzgerald can’t or won’t say. Who is “Official A” (although we can all guess)? Who were the other unnamed officials? It is a prosecutor’s job to build a criminal case, period, full stop. But in high-stakes political controversies, that’s not really the public interest–disclosure is. Then, everyone knows the facts and the public can make its judgments on what is appropriate. Offending officials can be punished with resignations and public obloquy. Except in dire cases–say, bribery–that process should take precedence over prosecutions rather than the other way around.
Unfortunately, Republicans and Democrats engage in alternating opportunism over “the criminalization of politics,” and it is the Democrats’ turn to pin their political hopes on the work of a prosecutor.