Who is Scooter Libby?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 21 2005 6:57 PM

Who Is Scooter Libby?

The secretive Cheney aide at the heart of the CIA leak case.

Libby: Straussianism and tequila shots
Click on image to enlarge.
Libby: Straussianism and tequila shots

Who is I. Lewis Libby? The not-Karl-Rove character at the center of the CIA leak investigation is so mysterious he hides his first name. Rove we know: He's Bush's political id—a self-taught master of political hardball, a brash Texan who has plotted the president's advance for 25 years.

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.

The adviser universally known as "Scooter" represents the other side of the Bush administration: the secret undisclosed side. Like the vice president he works for, Libby prefers to work on policy in the shadows and leave the politics to others. Unlike Rove, or even fellow neocons Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, Libby rarely speaks on the record; he almost never gives public speeches. Unlike the Texas gang, he doesn't boast at being an anti-intellectual and is in fact proud of his intellectual credentials. "Lewis Libby is a graduate of Yale University and Columbia University School of Law," reads the blurb under his picture on the back flap of his book, a historical novel about Japan at the turn of the 20th century.

If these two men are so different, why are Rove's and Libby's names now spending so much time in the same sentence? Both are under investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for telling reporters that Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA after Wilson challenged the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein sought to buy unenriched uranium from Niger. Though there is still much we do not know about their actions, one thing we can say is that the two were almost certainly leaking for different reasons. Rove's principal instinct would have been to knock back a threat to Bush's political standing. Libby's natural urge would have been to push back against the CIA with whom he and his boss had been waging an ongoing war over the intelligence that led to the war itself, a war for which he was a key proponent, and in which he continues to deeply believe.

According to one report, Libby became so obsessed with knocking back Wilson's claims, White House advisers had to step in. Arguing the point would only keep the charges alive and harm the president politically.

"Everything you know about Cheney you know about Scooter," says one who worked with him closely. That means that Libby is discreet, big-thinking, detail-oriented, and addicted to action over show. Libby is not only chief of staff but the vice president's top foreign-policy adviser. In the rare photos of Bush's war counsel, Libby can be seen in the background. He particularly shares his boss' fixation on external nuclear and bioterrorism threats. When Cheney was tasked with preparing a homeland security plan before the 9/11 attacks, it was Libby who handled it. He was minutes away from a meeting on the final report when the planes hit the World Trade Center.

Libby is a neocon's neocon. He studied political science at Yale under former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and began working with his former teacher under Cheney at the Defense Department during the George H.W. Bush administration, thinking about grand national security strategy in the post-Cold War era. When a document outlining their thinking leaked to the New York Times, the foreign policy establishment, including many of the more moderate voices in the first Bush administration, howled at its call for pre-emptive action against nations developing weapons of mass destruction. After 9/11, what was once considered loony became the Bush Doctrine.

Libby is not political in the glad-handing way—he looks as lost as Cheney at Republican Lincoln Day dinners. But he plays internal politics with force and lack of emotion. If the State Department under Colin Powell hated Dick Cheney, it hated Scooter almost as much, viewing him accurately as a pre-eminent member of the cabal hellbent for war with Iraq. It was Libby who sat with Powell in the final session before Powell's U.N. speech, eyeing every detail to make sure that the Secretary of State didn't water down the case. When Libby talked privately to friends about his rivals at State during the Powell era, it often sounded like the head of one political party speaking about the other, ascribing the worst motives and rarely giving Powell's team the benefit of the doubt.

Now no one is giving Libby the benefit of the doubt, at least in interpreting his mysterious jailhouse note to Judy Miller. That letter ended with a personal passage that seemed to cry out for accompaniment by moody background music: "You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now. You will have stories to cover—Iraqi elections and suicide bombers, biological threats and the Iranian nuclear program. Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work—and life. Until then, you will remain in my thoughts and prayers. With admiration, Scooter Libby."

Was this a hint to Miller about staying on the same page—either with her journalistic colleagues who seem to have backed Libby's story to the grand jury, or with her fellow former believer in Saddam's WMD stockpiles? Patrick Fitzgerald certainly wanted to know if Libby was trying to coach the reluctant witness to bolster his own case. Libby helpfully pointed out earlier in the letter that "every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me, or knew about her before our call."

Or, Scooter may have been playing with coded meanings that most of us are too dull to see. This suspicion arises naturally because of Libby's connection with Straussianism. Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish political philosopher, is seen by many as one of the intellectual fathers of neoconservatism. Wolfowitz, Libby's teacher at Yale, was a graduate student at the University of Chicago during Strauss' ascendancy, and Libby won membership into that conservative club via Wolfowitz. Part of Strauss' teaching is that ancient philosophers wrote on two levels: for the mumbling masses, but also, and often in contradiction of the literal message, on an "esoteric" level that only initiates could make out. Some Straussians have adopted this code themselves. So, where Homer Simpson would interpret Libby's note as ham-handed fawning over Judy, a Straussian close reader might discern something more devious: a literary file in the cake for both of them.

It's surprising, in any case, to find Libby is at the center of a press scandal. The daily communications operation is not something he cares much about. Rove, by contrast, spends a portion of every day running his own press operation. He sends BlackBerry messages, forwards polling data, and argues his case to influential journalists. Libby flies at a higher altitude, talking mostly to marquee columnists and preferring longer and more in-depth conversations to the rat-a-tat-tat required by reporters on deadline.

Libby does enjoy the intellectual cat-and-mouse game of longer form interviews, those who have worked with him say. He challenges basic assumptions and presses on a reporter's sloppy definitions. In my experience interviewing him, if a line of reasoning was in any way harmful to the administration or the vice president, it was sometimes impossible to get past the gorilla dust. His shimmy and shake sometimes got so bad, I wondered if he would even admit to working for the vice president. "It's very lawyerly kind of amusement," says a former aide.

When the Cheneys hosted a party in February 2002 for the paperback publication of Libby's book, the guest list was not filled with workaday journalists, but with the elite from New York and Washington: Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee, Leon Wieseltier and Maureen Dowd. In those early days after 9/11, it seemed like the relationship between the press and the media elite might turn out to be a fairly cozy one. The Bushies hated "old Washington," but as Libby and the vice president spoke from the landing at the bottom of the stairs, it seemed as if their half of the administration understood the quiet commerce between the ruling elite and the more permanent Washington establishment. Maureen Dowd, who was invited to that party, ended that fantasy.

Libby is fussy and precise with reporters, which is why friends and colleagues find it so hard to believe that he would have been involved in leaking Plame's identity, obstructing justice, or committing perjury. Libby was an exacting source for anyone who talked to him. After using a Libby quote, it was not unusual for reporters to receive a call from the vice president's press shop. Mr. Libby wanted to know why only a portion of his comment was used. "He would prefer that if a reporter was going to quote him that it be an unedited transcript," says one who worked closely with him. Other reporters were scolded if a Libby quote hidden under the attribution of "senior administration official" was placed near sentences that he thought might identify him, even if no reasonable reader could come to such a conclusion. In other words, he's as careful as they come in Washington.

Those who know him say that if you're going to be stuck in an undisclosed location with somebody, Scooter Libby isn't a bad choice. He can do tequila shots on the saddle-shaped seats of the Wyoming bar near the vice president's vacation house and deconstruct poetry afterward. He is also athletic. He skis, plays in a regular touch football game, and rode a mountain bike so hard one time at an AEI retreat, he fell and broke his collar bone. Once, at one of the undisclosed locations, he helped the Cheney grandchildren play pretend-Halloween, answering the door to the tricksters and handing out candy as if they were in their own neighborhood.

A man who likes to stay out of the limelight knows something about disguises. But I. Lewis Libby appears to be on the verge of losing the option of a low profile for good. If Fitzgerald announces his indictment, "Irving" will soon become a household name.

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