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Moment of Reckoning

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 10, 2007; 2:25 PM

President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their mouthpieces promised that once former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's legal options were exhausted, they would answer questions about the CIA leak case.

With the announcement this morning that Libby is dropping his appeal, that time has come.

For the record, here's what Cheney said on March 6, the day Libby was convicted by a federal jury of perjury and obstruction of justice: "Since his legal team has announced that he is seeking a new trial and, if necessary, pursuing an appeal, I plan to have no further comment on the merits of this matter until these proceedings are concluded."

And here's what Bush said the following day: "I'm pretty much going to stay out of it until the course -- the case has finally run its final -- the course it's going to take."

On June 5, the day Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison, then-deputy press secretary Dana Perino once again told reporters that the White House would have no comment as long as the legal process was still ongoing.

Q: "When do you consider the process over?"

Perino: "Well, I think when those appeals are exhausted is when it would be over."

Q: "And if Scooter Libby says, 'I'm not going to appeal'?"

Perino: "Well, then we'd have to take that into consideration and I'd have to come back with more reaction."

And, finally, on July 3, one day after Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence (but avoided any substantive discussion of the issues), then-press secretary Tony Snow said 3: "We are not going to make comments in detail until the legal process is over."

Yet, at today's mid-day briefing, an uncomfortable-looking Perino -- literally wringing her hands -- staved off even the most basic questions about the case, saying she hadn't had a chance to talk to Bush since Libby's decision was made public.

"I'm not saying it's unreasonable to ask," she said. "I'm saying I haven't had a chance to talk to the president, so I have nothing to give you."

What will the White House's excuse be for not talking now? I'm betting they'll say it's old news. Water under the bridge. But many questions remain unanswered.

What Needs to Be Asked

The facts uncovered during Libby's trial raised serious and deeply troubling questions about how the Bush-Cheney White House operates; about Bush's pledge to fire anyone responsible for the leak; about whether Bush was lied to by Libby and others; and about whether Bush lied to the public.

We still don't know how deeply involved Cheney was in a series of potentially criminal events, starting with the disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. As I wrote in my May 29 column, special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald has indicated that he was hot on Cheney's trail until that line of investigation was cut off by Libby's lies.

And Bush's decision to ultimately commute Libby's sentence raised further questions. Was Libby was being rewarded for taking the fall and protecting his bosses from further scrutiny?

In my March 7 column, I wrote that it was long past time for Bush and Cheney to come clean about their roles. But the White House stonewall remained effective because the media enabled it.

Now, undeniably, the appropriate response from reporters is sustained outrage until every last critically important question is addressed.

Today's News

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press about Libby's decision to drop his appeal.

"Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of perjury and obstruction but President Bush commuted his 30-month prison sentence in July. Had Libby won a new trial, that commutation would be meaningless and Libby would again face potential prison time. . . .

"The decision to withdraw his appeal means Libby will remain a convicted felon. President Bush could wipe away the conviction with a full pardon, something he has refused to rule out. Wells said Monday that he has not spoken to the White House about a pardon and does not know what Bush will do."

From the statement from Libby's lawyer, Theodore Wells: "We remain firmly convinced of Mr. Libby's innocence. However, the realities were, that after five years of government service by Mr. Libby and several years of defending against this case, the burden on Mr. Libby and his young family of continuing to pursue his complete vindication are too great to ask them to bear.

"Mr. Libby has made the decision to discontinue his appeal in recognition that success on the appeal would lead only to a retrial, a process that would last even beyond the two years of supervised release, cost millions of dollars more than the fine he has already paid, and entail many more hundreds of hours preparing for an all-consuming appeal and retrial."

Obstruction Continues

As I wrote last Monday, the White House is refusing to let Fitzgerald turn over to congressional investigators key documents from his investigation, including reports of interviews with Bush, Cheney and five top White House aides. According to House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, Fitzgerald is cooperating with the congressional investigation and had agreed to turn over the documents -- until the White House intervened.

More White House Stonewalling

Citing ongoing investigations, the White House on Friday refused to answer questions about who knew what when about the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing the harsh interrogations of two suspected al-Qaeda operatives. See my Friday column, Bush and the Torture Tapes.

Dan De Luce writes for AFP: "With Democrats and human rights groups charging President George W. Bush's administration may have tried to cover up past abuse, the revelation has revived debate about how [the] administration has treated terror suspects. . . .

"The White House has stopped short of denying any involvement in the affair, after the CIA admitted last week to the destruction of the tapes in light of a New York Times report.

"Aides said that Bush 'has no recollection' of being told about the tapes before the CIA chief briefed him last week."

Indeed, Perino's denial on Friday was very specific and limited. From the Friday briefing:

Q: On these CIA videotapes, did either the President or Vice President or Condoleezza Rice, when she was National Security Advisor, or Steve Hadley, see them before they were destroyed?"

Perino: "I spoke to the President, and so I will have to defer on the others. But I spoke to the President this morning about this. He has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction before yesterday. He was briefed by General Hayden yesterday morning. And as to the others, I'll have to -- I'll refer you to the Vice President's office and I'll see if I can get the others."

Faye Fiore and Chuck Neubauer write in the Los Angeles Times: "Senators from both parties suggested Sunday that the CIA's destruction of videotaped interrogations of two suspected Al Qaeda terrorists could constitute obstruction of justice, carried out as the spy agency's methods were coming under fierce legal scrutiny.

"'Burning tapes, destroying evidence -- I don't know how deep this goes. Could there be obstruction of justice? Yes,' Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a frequent critic of Bush administration foreign policy, said on CBS' 'Face the Nation.' . . .

"Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic candidate for president, urged Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey to appoint an independent investigator, suggesting the Bush administration could not be trusted to do a thorough job.

"'It appears as though there may be an obstruction of justice charge here -- tampering with evidence and destroying evidence,' Biden told ABC's 'This Week.' 'The easiest, straightest thing to do is to take it out of the political realm, appoint a special prosecutor and let them decide and call -- call it where it is. Is there a criminal violation? If there is, proceed. If not, don't.' . . .

"'I think this leads right into the White House,' Biden said. 'There may be a legal and rational explanation, but I don't see any on the face of it.'

"Hagel said it defied logic that senior White House officials would not have been informed of the CIA's intention to destroy the tapes. If they were not, he said, it would indicate 'gross malfeasance and incompetency.'

"'It's hard for me to believe that senior members of the White House somehow didn't pay attention to this or didn't know about it,' Hagel said. 'Maybe they're so incompetent' that they missed it."

Josh White wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "The Justice Department and the CIA announced yesterday that they have started a preliminary inquiry into the CIA's 2005 destruction of videotapes that depicted harsh interrogation of two terrorism suspects.

"The announcement follows congressional demands Friday for an investigation into the CIA's action despite warnings from the White House and congressional leaders to preserve the tapes."

Mark Mazzetti wrote in Saturday's New York Times that, according to two government officials, Scott W. Muller, then the agency's general counsel "raised the idea of destroying the tapes during discussions in 2003 with Justice Department lawyers and with Harriet E. Miers, who was then a deputy White House chief of staff. Ms. Miers became White House counsel in early 2005.

"The officials said that Ms. Miers and the Justice Department lawyers had advised against destroying the tapes, but that it was not clear what the basis for their advice had been. . . .

"It was also not clear when the White House or Justice Department were told that the tapes had been destroyed, or whether anyone at either place was notified in advance that Mr. Rodriguez had ordered that the step be taken."

Opinion Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "When it destroyed at least two videotapes of the interrogation of captured al-Qaeda operatives, the Central Intelligence Agency may have eliminated evidence of criminal activity. . . .

"CIA Director Michael V. Hayden's assertion that the tapes were purged because of concerns they would leak and be used by al-Qaeda to track down interrogators is not credible. The CIA is skilled at keeping secrets and protecting agents without destroying valuable material. It is far more plausible that CIA officials eliminated evidence that could have been used to hold interrogators accountable for illegal acts of torture -- as well as the more senior administration officials who ordered or approved those acts."

The USA Today editorial board writes: "The reason CIA Director Michael Hayden cited for the agency's decision -- to protect operatives' identities -- seems dubious at best. The CIA has all manner of records that identify officers and doesn't destroy them. . . .

"Had there been no torture, there would have been no need to destroy the tapes."

Bob Schieffer, in his commentary on CBS's "Face the Nation" mulls the "CIA's use of what our own Army and the Geneva Conventions define as torture, and how officials destroyed evidence when a federal judge demanded tapes of the interrogation episodes."

He concludes: "Is that our message to the world? That we are a government of laws except when it is inconvenient? If so, then what was done in the name of security has greatly harmed security.

"Weapons keep our enemies at bay, but our real security rests on whether the rest of the world comes to share our values or the values of those who oppose us, and whether all people are better served by a government of laws or what someone decides the law ought to be at some particular moment. Have we helped our cause when--with the rest of the world when they come to believe we have sunk to using the tactics of those who oppose us, when we no longer can be trusted to practice what we preach? Is this what we want the world to know about us? More importantly, is it what we want our children to know?"

Congressional Complicity

Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

"Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said."

Cheney Watch

Maria Sudekum Fisher writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney used a speech Friday at a military museum on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack to criticize Congress for its 'irresponsible' approach to war funding."

Said Cheney, to an invitation-only audience: "We've shown a watching world that we are a good and a just nation, secure in our ideals, fearless in their defense, and willing to sacrifice greatly for the cause of long-term peace and freedom. This cause is bigger than the quarrels of party and the agendas of politicians; and at this hour in our history, it's the cause of America -- and the best among us are fighting and sacrificing for its success. And if we in Washington, all of us, can only see our way to work together, then the outcome is not in doubt. We will press on in our mission, and we will achieve victory."

Remember Iraq?

Ned Parker writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was meant to freeze the country's civil war so political leaders could rebuild their fractured nation. Ten months later, the country's bloodshed has dropped, but the military strategy has failed to reverse Iraq's disintegration into areas dominated by militias, tribes and parties, with a weak central government struggling to assert its influence. . . .

"'Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, a highly decentralized situation -- totally unplanned, of course -- with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias,' said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. 'The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone.'"

Less Faith Talk

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "There is something missing from President Bush's speeches these days, an omission all the more profound because what's lacking used to be so prevalent.

"Bush is not talking about his faith anymore. . . .

"Bush's 2005 inaugural address was full of religious references and imagery from several faiths. The same year, Bush reportedly told high-ranking Palestinian leaders that his own faith directed him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Bush has justified military action by saying that 'freedom is almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world.' . . .

"These days, God is out of U.S. foreign policy, at least in Bush's public remarks.

"The president finishes most of his appearances with a polite 'God bless,' but talk of his Creator is harder to come by."

Subprime Subsolution

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's mortgage relief plan: "The plan is, as a Times editorial put it yesterday, 'too little, too late and too voluntary.' But from the administration's point of view these failings aren't bugs, they're features.

"In fact, there's a growing consensus among financial observers that the Paulson plan isn't mainly intended to achieve real results. The point is, instead, to create the appearance of action, thereby undercutting political support for actual attempts to help families in trouble."

Columnist Humor

Krugman blogs for the Times: "Back when Hillary Clinton described Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, a number of people pointed out that this was an unfair comparison. For example, Darth Vader once served in the military.

"Here's another reason the comparison is invalid: the contractors Darth Vader hired to build the Death Star actually got the job done."

Blogger Brad DeLong provides a specific example of the difference between the Vader and Cheney attitudes about accountability.

Gift Watch

Christine Simmons of the Associated Press writes about "an $11,000 Cartier Santos Dumont watch with an 18K white gold case, given to Bush in April 2006 by Thailand's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra," as well as other foreign gifts received by administration officials.

Here are some of the highlights, including, for Bush, a "CD titled 'Junichiro Koizumi Presents: My Favorite Elvis Songs,' from Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and for Cheney, a "fur-lined cashmere Arabic coat" and a "gold vermeil sword with diamond-studded hilt" from Saudi King Abdullah.

The complete list from the Federal Register shows that almost all of the gifts were turned over to the archives.

Perino's Sense of History

Mark Silva blogs for Tribune about Perino's guest appearance on an NPR Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me episode that aired over the weekend. Said Perino: "I had a situation the other day when they said President Putin thought that our missile defense program was like the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so I got asked about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I was - panicked a bit -- because I really know about nothing about the Cuban Missile Crisis.''

Mike Nizza blogs for the New York Times about the ensuing blog uproar.

Karl Rove Watch

In a Boston Globe op-ed, author Stephen McCauley calls Karl Rove a literary genius, "after watching your recent performance on 'The Charlie Rose Show.'"

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on torture, John Sherffius on the Bush mortgage plan, and cartoons about Cheney by R.J. Matson and Mike Thompson make Time's list of the top 10 editorial cartoons of 2007.

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