In a January 17 article about the trial of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, The New York Times quoted several high-profile political operatives and other prominent people heaping praise on Libby but failed to identify them as members of his legal defense fund's advisory committee. Further, while the article included numerous comments from Libby's compatriots regarding his purported competence and apolitical character, the Times quoted only one vaguely negative assessment of Libby's tenure.
Libby is being tried in federal court on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from the CIA leak case. Early in the article, the Times referred to Libby's indictment on these counts as a “baffling paradox” :
But now comes the most baffling paradox of all, as Mr. Libby, former chief of staff and alter ego to Vice President Dick Cheney, began his trial in federal court here on Tuesday on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. By all accounts a first-rate legal mind and a hypercautious aide whose discretion frustrated reporters, he is charged with repeatedly lying to a grand jury and to the F.B.I. about his leaks to the news media in the battle over Iraq war intelligence.
The Times went on to quote several of Libby's friends and colleagues vouching for his character, including former Ambassador Dennis Ross, former vice presidential adviser Mary Matalin, and neoconservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama:
“I don't often use the word 'incomprehensible,' but this is incomprehensible to me,” said Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East troubleshooter who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He's a lawyer who's as professional and competent as anyone I know. He's a friend, and when he says he's innocent, I believe him. I just can't account for this case.”
“He's going to be the poster boy for the criminalization of politics, and he's not even political,” said Mary Matalin, Mr. Cheney's former political adviser.
He was “Cheney's Cheney,” in Ms. Matalin's words, "an absolutely salient translator" of the ideas of the man considered perhaps the most powerful vice president in history.
"He never struck me, even knowing him as I do, as an ideologue," said Mr. Fukuyama, who has skied with Mr. Libby and both of whose children were on the same Little League team. “I wouldn't say I have a particularly good handle on his worldview.”
The Times later noted that Libby's legal defense fund “has a board that would be the envy of any conservative institution, including five former cabinet members, five former members of Congress and seven former ambassadors.” The paper did not report, however, that Ross, Matalin, and Fukuyama are all members of the fund's advisory committee and, as such, are apparently helping raise money to "defray" Libby's legal costs.
Beyond these three individuals, the Times also quoted a high school classmate of Libby's, a college classmate, and the head of a law firm where he previously worked -- all of whom stressed Libby's intelligence, work ethic, and nonpolitical nature. Meanwhile, the only less-than-positive quote in the article came from historian John Prados, who vaguely asserted that, while Libby “didn't plan the war,” he “facilitat[ed]” the Bush administration's efforts to invade Iraq.
By contrast, in an October 31, 2005, profile of Libby, U.S. News & World Report included both positive assessments of Libby from the likes of Matalin and Ross and more critical judgments from others regarding his operating style and strong advocacy in favor of going to war with Iraq:
Mary Matalin, a Cheney confidant, told U.S. News: “He does for the vice president what the vice president does for the president. He's exceedingly analytical, detailed, strategic, bright; and he's discreet.” And when he throws himself into a project, says Matalin, “he does it to the nth degree.”
That could be part of the problem, critics say. “He is very tense and dedicated, and very pleased to be part of the inner circle,” says a former White House adviser. “But I can see how he could lose his sense of balance. He can have tunnel vision.” Critics especially fault Libby for going too far in methodically pushing the country toward war in Iraq. Allied with Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he was an architect of the administration's case for invasion and played a key role in compiling White House allegations--since disproved--that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction at the time.
“He is intensely partisan,” Jackson Hogan, his Yale roommate, told U.S. News, “in that if he is your counsel, he'll embrace your case and try to figure a way out of whatever noose you are ensnared in.” That might help explain Libby's aggressive representation of Marc Rich, the billionaire fugitive whose later pardon by President Bill Clinton in January 2001 caused an uproar.
One of his fans is Dennis Ross, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, who worked with Libby at the State Department in the early 1980s. Ross praised Libby's decency and sense of humor and added: “He's cared much more about trying to do a job than trying to get visibility for himself. He's approached his job with the sense that his role is to basically support others.” Ross told U.S. News that Libby didn't strike him as an “ideologue.” Asked his reaction to Libby's possible indictment, Ross said, “Disbelief. ... I view him as someone who ... would be very mindful of the thresholds not to cross.”