Scooter Libby and the media debacle

The New York Times made headlines last week when it tapped a new D.C. bureau chief. But if the paper of record really wanted to jump-start its Beltway news operation, maybe it should have tried to lure Patrick Fitzgerald away from the Department of Justice.

The New York Times made headlines last week when it tapped a new D.C. bureau chief. But if the paper of record really wanted to jump-start its Beltway news operation, maybe it should have tried to lure Patrick Fitzgerald away from the Department of Justice.

Let's face it, as special counsel in charge of investigating the Valerie Plame CIA leak, and now the lead prosecutor in D.C. federal court methodically laying out the damning evidence of perjury, obstruction, and lying against Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Fitzgerald has consistently shown more interest -- and determination -- in uncovering the facts of the Plame scandal than most Beltway journalists, including the often somnambulant D.C. newsroom of The New York Times.

Indeed, for long stretches, the special counsel easily supplanted the timid D.C. press corps and become the fact-finder of record for the Plame story. It was Fitzgerald and his team of G-men -- not journalists -- who were running down leads, asking tough questions and, in the end, helping inform the American people about possible criminal activity inside the White House.

It's true that Fitzgerald's team had subpoena power that no journalist could match. But reporters in this case had a trump card of their own: inside information. Sadly, most journalists remained mum about the coveted and often damning facts, dutifully keeping their heads down and doing their best to make sure the details never got out about the White House's obsession with discrediting former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV by outing his undercover CIA wife, Valerie Plame.

So as the facts of the White House cover-up now tumble out into open court, it's important to remember that if it hadn't been for Fitzgerald's work, there's little doubt the Plame story would have simply faded into oblivion like so many other disturbing suggestions of Bush administration misdeeds. And it would have faded away because lots of high-profile journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and NBC wanted it to.

In a sense, it was Watergate in reverse. Instead of digging for the truth, lots of journalists tried to bury it. The sad fact remains the press was deeply involved in the cover-up, as journalists reported White House denials regarding the Plame leak despite the fact scores of them received the leak and knew the White House was spreading rampant misinformation about an unfolding criminal case.

And that's why the Plame investigation then, and the Libby perjury trial now, so perfectly capture what went wrong with the timorous press corps during the Bush years as it routinely walked away from its responsibility of holding people in power accountable and ferreting out the facts.

Why the early press silence regarding Plame? I think that like Bush, who publicly expressed doubt in 2003 that “we'll find out who the leaker is,” it's likely most reporters never thought the case would be cracked, since leak inquiries were historically toothless and futile. (It appears Libby made the same miscalculation, misleading FBI investigators in 2003, never suspecting Fitzgerald would take over the case the following year and uncover Libby's perjury.)

So if the leakers weren't going to be found out, what was the point of reporters going public with their information and angering a then-popular White House that had already established a habit for making life professionally unpleasant for reporters who pressed too hard? Reporters all over Washington, D.C., were more than willing to drop the story and look away. So instead, it fell to Fitzgerald to do the watchdog work traditionally overseen by the press corps.

Nobody would argue that the story is being ignored today. Far from it: The press is gorging on details from the Libby trial, which makes sense considering it's the most significant criminal case to spring from the Bush White House. The case also goes straight to the administration's signature attempt to mislead the country into war, in this case by airing the totally bogus allegation that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger to kick-start his nuclear weapons program. Yet for years, while support for the war remained strong, the press was alternately cautious, misleading, and even contentious about covering the crucial story.

For instance, the press often described the Plame leak as a well-kept mystery that had journalists completely stumped. As late as July 12, 2005, ABC's Nightline reported that, “For two years, it's been unknown who told reporters the identity of Valerie Plame,” which was just silly. First, it took me about three days in the fall of 2003 to figure out Libby was the likely culprit, and I had no heavyweight sources helping me. Second, here's a partial list of D.C. journalists who had personal, inside information about the case and could have unwrapped the Plame leak mystery, or at least advanced parts of the story in real time: syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak; NBC's Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, and David Gregory; MSNBC's Chris Matthews; Time's Matthew Cooper, along with Michael Duffy, John Dickerson, and Viveca Novak; The New York Times' Judith Miller, and The Washington Post's Bob Woodward.

They could have, but none of them did. Instead, at times there was an unspoken race away from the Bush scandal, a collective retreat that's likely unprecedented in modern-day Beltway journalism.

As for mainstream journalists who didn't have inside info, many of them were busy rooting for the White House and sniping at Fitzgerald. In the days and weeks before the Libby indictments were announced in October 2005, it was media elite columnists who urged Fitzgerald to go easy with any charges. The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof (subscription required) didn't want people to “exaggerate” the leaking of Plame's identity, arguing White House insiders probably didn't know she was undercover. (“Negligence rather than vengeance.”) Newsweek echoed that defense, insisting that neither Cheney nor Libby ever meant any harm by initiating their Plame whispering campaign. Instead, the newsweekly reported, “It is much more likely they believed that they were somehow safeguarding the republic.” [Emphasis added]

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen dismissed the criminal investigation as banal and trivial. “The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals,” he wrote. Fellow Post columnist Michael Kinsley agreed, wondering whether the “whole prosecution is nuts.”

Online at Slate, which strives mightily to match the clubby, insider tone of traditional media outlets such as the Post, editor Jacob Weisberg in 2005 obediently fretted over what kind of “creative crap charges” Fitzgerald might lodge against Bush administration officials.

More recently, The Washington Post's David Broder dismissed the entire affair as “overblown” and a “tempest in a teapot,” while calling on some journalists to apologize to White House senior adviser Karl Rove for suggesting he was part of the campaign to leak Plame's identity, despite the fact Rove did play a central role in the leaking. And just last week, the Post's Cohen dismissed the Libby trial as “silly,” while Kinsley, now at Time, suggested that Libby, by leaking to reporters, was “a martyr of press freedom.”

As blogger Marcy Wheeler writes in her revealing new Plame/Libby book, Anatomy of Deceit (Vaster Books, January 2007), it was as if the media were “making the case that the press should retain exclusive judgment on the behavior of politicians, with no role for the courts.” Unfortunately, the press has shown it's no longer up to fulfilling that important role.

Journalists remain mum during Bush's re-election

In 2004, Time magazine's Cooper was subpoenaed to appear before Fitzgerald's grand jury and answer questions about the Plame leak he received in 2003. Cooper and Time initially refused to cooperate and fought the subpoena in court. Cooper agreed to testify during the summer of 2005 after receiving a waiver from his source, Karl Rove, who assured him it was OK to disclose their confidential conversation. Of course, Cooper could have asked for that same waiver in 2004, which would have significantly quickened the pace of the investigation. But Cooper did not, according to a Los Angeles Times report, because “Time editors were concerned about becoming part of such an explosive story in an election year.”

As blogger Steve Soto wrote at The Left Coaster, “Time magazine's editors knew that Matt Cooper had a huge story on their hands about Rove's involvement and the lengths the White House went to in order to discredit an opponent, but they sat on the story until after the election for fear of becoming part of a story that might affect the election.”

Note that when announcing the indictment of Libby on Oct. 29, 2005, Fitzgerald stressed that his two-year investigation could have been over 12 months earlier if reporters had cooperated. “We would have been here in October 2004 instead of October 2005,” Fitzgerald said. [Emphasis added.]

NBC's Russert was another prominent Beltway reporter who could have made life very uncomfortable for the White House in 2004 by publicizing his first-hand knowledge about key disputes regarding the Libby investigation. Instead, Russert -- host of Meet the Press, which at the time enjoyed a very close working relationship with Libby's boss, Cheney -- chose to remain silent regarding central facts.

Russert's bombshell was that when cooperating with Fitzgerald during the summer of 2004, Russert detailed under oath a key phone conversation he had with Libby the previous summer. In 2004, Russert knew his testimony would likely ensnare Libby because the two men two gave contradictory answers regarding the conversation. Indeed, the conversation became the linchpin for the perjury charges because Libby told investigators it was during his phone call with Russert that Libby first learned about Plame's identity. Russert, though, testified the two men never even discussed Plame that day on the phone. (Or any other day.)

Following his testimony, NBC released a statement in which the network stressed Russert never received a leak from Libby and that Russert did not give Libby any information about Plame.

But why, in the name of transparency, didn't the network issue a statement that made clear Russert and Libby never even discussed Plame? Why was that glaringly important point left unsaid since it would have raised all sorts of questions about Libby's testimony? Why, during an election year, didn't Russert appear on Meet the Press and say, “Based on questions posed by special prosecutor Fitzgerald, it seemed clear Libby had testified that he and I spoke about Plame in July 2003, when in fact we did not”?

If Fitzgerald or NBC's lawyers didn't want Russert to talk publicly about his testimony, Russert should have said so. If Russert didn't want to embarrass Libby politically, he should have said so. Instead, for more than a year prior to the indictments, Russert simply pretended to be upfront about his involvement.

Russert is expected to take the stand in the Libby trial this week.

And then there was the sad display put on by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward who, in various television appearances during the investigation, made it quite clear that he thought little of Fitzgerald's efforts, that it was “disgraceful,” that Fitzgerald was a “junkyard prosecutor,” and that the leak had caused the CIA no harm. In fact, Woodward boldly predicted that when “all of the facts come out in this case, it's going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great.”

What the famed Beltway insider forgot to tell television viewers -- not to mention his Post editor -- was that Woodward himself had received a leak about Plame way back in 2003, which meant Woodward, the former sleuth, had been sitting been sitting on a sizeable scoop for more than two years.

If at any point prior to the Libby indictments Woodward had come forward with his information, it would have been politically devastating for the White House. Instead, Woodward remained mum about the facts while publicly mocking Fitzgerald's investigation.

Regardless of the outcome from the Libby perjury case, the trial itself will be remembered for pulling back the curtain on the Bush White House as it frantically tried to cover up its intentional effort to mislead the nation to war. Sadly, the trial will also serve as a touchstone for how the Beltway press corps completely lost its way during the Bush years and became afraid of the facts -- and the consequences of reporting them.