There is significance in timing of indictment

WASHINGTON -- Has anyone noticed that the cover-up worked? In his impressive presentation of the indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby last week, Patrick Fitzgerald expressed the wish that witnesses had testified when subpoenas were issued in Augus...

    WASHINGTON -- Has anyone noticed that the cover-up worked?

    In his impressive presentation of the indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby last week, Patrick Fitzgerald expressed the wish that witnesses had testified when subpoenas were issued in August 2004, and "we would have been here in October 2004 instead of October 2005."

    Note the significance of the two dates: October 2004, before President Bush was re-elected, and October 2005, after the president was re-elected. Those dates make clear why Libby threw sand in the eyes of prosecutors, in the special counsel's apt metaphor, and helped drag this investigation on.

    As long as Bush still faced the voters, the White House wanted Americans to think that officials such as Libby, Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney had nothing to do with the leak campaign to discredit its arch-critic on Iraq, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

    And Libby, the good soldier, pursued a brilliant strategy to slow the inquiry down. As long as he was claiming that journalists were responsible for spreading around the name and past CIA employment of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, Libby knew that at least some news organizations would resist having reporters testify. The journalistic "shield" was converted into a shield for the Bush administration's coverup.


    Bush and his disciples would like everyone to assume that Libby was some kind of lone operator who, for this one time in his life abandoned his usual caution. They pray that Libby will be the only official facing legal charges and that political interest in the case will dissipate.

    You can tell the president worries this won't work because on Monday, he did what he usually does when he's in trouble: He sought to divide the country and set up a bruising ideological fight. He did so by nominating a staunchly conservative judge to the Supreme Court.

    Judge Samuel Alito is a red flag for liberals and red meat for Bush's socially conservative base. Alito has a long paper trail as a 15-year veteran of the Court of Appeals and a right-wing reputation so strong that he has been nicknamed "Scalito," after Justice Antonin Scalia who is presumed to be Alito's philosophical soul mate. All this guarantees a huge battle that will serve the president even if Alito's nomination fails: Anything that "unites the base" and distracts attention from the Fitzgerald investigation is good news for Bush.

    That is why Senate Democrats -- and one hopes they might be joined by some brave Republicans -- should insist that before Alito's nomination is voted on, Bush and Cheney have some work to do.

    The Fitzgerald indictment makes perfectly clear that the White House misled the public as to its involvement in sliming Wilson and in talking about Plame. Fitzgerald was especially eloquent in describing the potential damage to our intelligence services when public officials play fast and loose with classified material about individuals.

    Bush needs to tell the public -- yes, the old phrase still applies -- what he knew about the operation to discredit Wilson and when he knew it. And he shouldn't hide behind those "legalisms" that Republicans were so eager to condemn in the Clinton years.

    The obligation to come clean applies, big-time, to Cheney, who appears at several critical points in the saga detailed in the Fitzgerald indictment. What, exactly, transpired in the meetings between Libby and Cheney on the Wilson case? It is inconceivable that an aide as careful and loyal as Libby was a rogue official. Did Cheney set these events in motion? This is a question about good government at least as much as it is a legal matter.

    Fitzgerald has made clear that he wants to keep this case going if doing so would bring us closer to the truth. Lawyers not involved in the case suggest that the indictment was written in a way that could encourage Libby, facing up to 30 years in prison, to cooperate in that effort.


    But there is a catch. If Libby, through nods and winks, knows that at the end of Bush's term, the president will issue an unconditional pardon, he will have no interest in helping Fitzgerald and every interest in shutting up. If Bush truly wants the public to know all the facts in the leak case, as he has claimed in the past, he will announce now that he will not pardon Libby. That would let Fitzgerald finish his work unimpeded, and we will all have a chance, at last, to learn how and why this sad affair came to pass.

    E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is .

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