Lynched by the Media

Clarence Thomas famously said the verbal mugging he received at his Senate confirmation hearing for his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court was a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” It was the product of Senate Democrats and their media allies.  But the abuse Justice Thomas suffered, though it caused him and his family enormous pain, never really endangered him. Yesterday a Washington, D.C. jury returned verdicts of conviction on four out of five counts lodged against Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.  If he loses his appeals, Libby will lose his freedom absent a presidential pardon.  The Libby trial was a media lynching, worse by far than what Justice Thomas suffered at the hands of the Senate.

The Libby trial is the apparent end of a multi-act press circus that started inside the CIA, apparently intended to generate news coverage adverse to the President.  Former Ambassador Joe Wilson — with no qualifications or training as an intelligence agent — went to Niger for the CIA to “investigate” the claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime had bought or tried to buy uranium yellowcake there.  But in sending him there the CIA exempted Wilson from one of the most fundamental rules:  he wasn’t required to sign a “secrecy” agreement that was — up to then — invariably required of intelligence analysts and agents as well as people who have access to top secret information.  The fact that Wilson didn’t sign one means that whoever sent him on his Niger mission intended that he be able to blab whatever he liked to whichever newspapers and television networks he liked upon his return.

And blab he did.  Almost immediately upon his return, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times describing his “investigation” as, “eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people,” in which he often revealed he was on a mission for the U.S. government.  George Smiley he ain’t.  Wilson wrote, “It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction [sale of uranium from Niger to Iraq] had ever taken place.” Wilson then went on his own crusade to discredit the Administration’s case against Saddam’s nuclear program. The media circus was launched with all the fanfare that ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times and the Washington Post could produce. Then came the revelation that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA employee. 

Originally reported by columnist Robert Novak, the Plame-CIA connection renewed ol’ Joe Wilson’s star credentials for another round on the TV talk shows. He took full advantage, demanding that Karl Rove be “frog marched” out of the White House in handcuffs.  This drove the White House and Justice Department into a panic and resulted in then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft recusing himself, and his deputy, James Comey, appointing Patrick Fitzgerald as special prosecutor with — literally — all the powers of the attorney general and none of the constraints. 

Very soon after his appointment, Fitzgerald found out that though Plame’s CIA employ was “classified” (as was every other person at CIA who had access to the lunch room), she wasn’t a covert agent, so revealing her identity wasn’t a crime.  And then (or perhaps even before that) Fitzgerald learned that the original leaker was Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state.  The whole matter should have ended there.  There was no crime, and — at that point — there was no perjury, obstruction of justice or anything else punishable under law.  There were acts of politics, nothing more. 

But the media horde was crashing sword upon shield, demanding that Fitzgerald look into the darkest corners of the White House to see if there was a dark Cheney-Vader conspiracy to revenge the Empire upon Wilson.  It’s always the cover-up, ya know.  And Fitzgerald, who should have known better, glowed in the spotlight.

So Fitzgerald cast the media circus into a wider ring, at the U.S. District Court, with some of the biggest press celebrities paraded in and out to testify before the grand jury.  One media mentionable was even tossed in jail for a bit.  For those of us who remember the happier times when the same concrete terrace in front of the same court was known to its denizens as “Monica Beach,” there was the foreboding knowledge that something would have to be done to someone to satisfy the appetite a-building on every tidbit that dropped from the grand jury’s maw.  The press crowd demanded action.  They wouldn’t be camped out so long and come away empty-handed.  And they didn’t. The indictment of Scooter Libby being pronounced by a Fitzgerald who had apparently achieved what he sought:  a Lawrence Walsh-like prominence in the media. His performance at the Libby indictment press conference made clear that he was enjoying himself, and feeding on the media as much as they were feeding on him.

And so it went, from month to month, with the last 10 days spent in jury deliberations.  And at noon on Tuesday the jury came back with what the media wanted.  Convictions on perjury and obstruction of justice.  There will be appeals, but the press will grant no clemency.

Though Fitzgerald said he isn’t planning to bring more charges and that the investigation is essentially over, the media aren’t done with this.  What’s coming?  In a BBC interview last night, I got one hint. The news presenter asked me if the conviction of Libby wasn’t proof of the Bush Administration’s ruthlessness, that it would endanger peoples’ lives to cover its own wrongdoing.  I explained, perhaps in less gentlemanly terms than I should have, that Valerie Plame was never covert, never endangered in any way.  But my riposte fell on deaf ears. 

The media wants Dick Cheney’s scalp.  Or George Bush’s.  Never mind the facts.  Never mind the law.  The press has lynched Scooter Libby. Now they’ve set their sights higher.