What's left of Scooter Libby's reputation.

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Oct. 31 2005 11:02 AM

Liar or Fool?

What's left of Scooter Libby's reputation.

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Scooter, Scooter, Scooter

When Democratic wise man Clark Clifford was accused of acting as a front for the corrupt Pakistani bank BCCI, he admitted, "I have a choice of either seeming stupid or venal." Clifford had become famously invaluable to presidents by using his sharp mind to help them navigate the waters of Washington. That reputation for shrewdness made it hard for anyone to imagine him dumb enough to be duped.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Scooter Libby is in the same fix: His reputation is now a witness against him. Libby is known for his precision and intellect. I, like many of the reporters who now must cover his trial, remember the micrometer he used to measure our questions and assumptions. So it's hard to buy his lawyer's suggestion that Libby's misstatements to the FBI and grand jury were due to a shaky memory made shakier by "the hectic rush of issues and events at a busy time for our government." Yes, he worked 14-hour days handling tricky and disparate issues. But this isn't a matter of forgetting what you had for lunch. How Libby learned Plame's identity was a central question of a 22-month investigation. He had time to think this through.

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Before Libby gets a chance to defend himself in court, he must suffer through speculation about the seemingly more plausible rationale for his actions: that he knew he should not have spoken about Plame and that to cover up having done so, he fashioned a fictitious narrative.

Two witnesses against him may be his former colleagues Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer. Based on what can be gleaned from the indictment and elsewhere, these two aides treated news of Plame's employment as if it were radioactive before it ever became a public issue. Their caution suggests that at the upper levels of the administration not only was Wilson's wife's identity known, but that it was also known that it was not for public distribution.

Karl Rove talked to only two reporters back in July 2003. That doesn't mean Patrick Fitzgerald can't still indict him for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or obstructing his investigation. But it does mean that whatever Rove was up to, he was being careful with that information. Rove could have reached scores of influential journalists with whom he has close relations. Yet he talked to only two reporters. And those reporters called him; he didn't dial around looking for a receptive stenographer.

More astonishingly, we learn from the Fitzgerald indictment that Ari Fleischer knew about Plame and didn't tell anyone at all. He walked reporters, including me, up to the fact, suggesting they look into who sent Wilson, but never used her name or talked about her position. Why not? It certainly would have been helpful for him at the time. His colleagues were savaging him at the time for bungling the response to Wilson's July 6 New York Times opinion piece. They blamed him for not sufficiently refuting the article. By leaking the Plame information, Fleischer could have discredited Wilson, muddied the story, and won back the affection of his complaining colleagues.

Fleischer and Rove each discussed Plame with Scooter. A tantalizing fact still hidden in Fitzgerald's briefcase is whether Libby in those conversations with Fleischer and Rove discussed disclosing Plame's identity.

Even Libby seems to have been using potholders when he talked about Plame in 2003. He didn't mention her to some of the reporters to whom he talked about Wilson and even in the cases where he did, he was vague. According to Judy Miller's account of her testimony, Libby said he thought Wilson's wife might work at the CIA. He offhandedly half-confirmed it to my former Time colleague Matthew Cooper only when Cooper brought it up. "Yeah, I've heard that too." he said.

Why was this fact important enough for Libby to risk discussing it at all? For the same reason administration critics zeroed in on FEMA Director Michael Brown's friendship with his predecessor Joe Allbaugh. When it was reported (incorrectly) that the two had been roommates in college, critics had a handy explanation of how someone as unqualified as Brown had nevertheless been promoted to head the disaster agency. Nepotism provided a quick way to hollow out Wilson's claims. It also fit with Libby's depiction of the CIA as an agency playing its own games rather than pursuing the facts in a cleareyed way.

The way Patrick Fitzgerald tells it, in the spring and summer of 2003, Scooter Libby was marinating in information about Joe Wilson's wife. He was also discussing her status with reporters. The subject of her CIA status shows up so many times in Scooter's world, Fitzgerald argues, that it became an indelible fact, impossible to forget, particularly for someone repeatedly asked to think hard about it under penalty of law.

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