NOVEL COVERAGE OF THE LIBBY SCANDAL FROM THE WEB
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, October 31, 2005 -- For four and a half days, it seemed like media slapstick rather than serious discussion. But then, at 2 p.m. Friday, October 28, everything changed. In what may turn out to be a historic demarcation, Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference represented the first real blow against an administration's arrogant lies. Whether it turns out to be the return of Watergate remains to be seen, but for now we have a start.
Up through Thursday evening, it was a week in which the mass media most resembled a small town sewing circle trading unsubstantiated gossip. All week, apologists for the Bush administration's dirty tricks were merchandising their wares with typical effrontery, and nobody could tell them authoritatively that they were wrong.
As of Friday afternoon, the credibility of all such exercises has been seriously undermined.
It was a week in which important lessons were just starting to develop - lessons about the limits to power, about inadequacies in our electoral process and about the implicit admission by all sides - correct or not - that President Bush has been little more than a puppet.
It was the week that the Republicans went soft on crime, or at least the crime of perjury, even as they - and one senator in particular - brought new depth and meaning to the word "hypocrisy."
At the beginning, it was a week in which the media wrote about the media writing about the media. With nothing but conjecture available, that is what they do.
The anti-Bush camp had a name for the desired event: Fitzmas. Poems starting "Twas the night before Fitzmas" circulated (Marc Cooper made it into a contest on his blog.) The speculative verbiage in print and on internet sites had become, if not quite astronomic, at least in the orbital range, and nobody except a few insiders actually knew anything for sure.
Newspapers and internet sites were full of reports from sources "close to the investigation" or "close to the White House" or - my favorite here - what was described as an "uber insider source." This last reference, cited by the Website of The Washington Note, predicted that indictments would be filed mid-week and that a press conference would probably be held on Thursday. It suggested indictments against "targets," in the plural.
Considering the inaccuracy of this report, we probably won't be seeing that Germanic uber-adjective used again any time soon. The "Note" later reported - and almost immediately retracted - a story that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had signed a lease that would substantially expand his office space into an adjacent location. At least the retraction was accurate.
This is not to rag on the Washington Note, but to report that these allegations were almost immediately recycled by numerous other sites, which were in turn requoted further down the line. In the Electronic Age, rumors go global in moments.
Finally, very late in the week, the buzz got fairly close to the truth; that is, that the Vice President's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby alone would be indicted, and that the details would be revealed on Friday.
Through all this, there were the useful sources and there were the spinners. As to the latter, the talk radio machinery geared up into overdrive. Sean Hannity was positively seething (is he ever anything but?) in his treatment of Plame and Wilson as the real villains. Ann Coulter tried to suggest that the Libby indictment would not affect the Bush administration all that much, although she later took a more nuanced view of the difficulties Karl Rove will face in his current legal limbo.
Radio host Larry Elder was only slightly more reasoned in his response to the Libby indictment. His argument, the distilled essence of the Republican spin, goes like this: Libby didn't actually commit a crime in revealing Valerie Plame's identity to reporters, because she wasn't actually "covert" in the technical meaning of the word in July, 2003, the time when Libby's original acts were carried out. This argument is based on the legal definition of "covert," which seems to require that an intelligence officer must have served overseas sometime during the preceding five years. According to this reasoning, Libby was unwise to lie to the FBI and to the grand jury, but those are the only crimes that occurred, and (by implication) the rest of the administration remains unscathed by this little teapot tempest.
We may be allowed to wonder how Sean Hannity and Larry Elder can be so sure about where Valerie Plame was or was not during in past years, but the argument itself is a political non-starter. To say that Libby may have lucked out based on a technicality - and that this is why he was not charged under one particular statute - is to make a not-very-good case for this administration.
It is also to use an argument that is losing credibility fast, namely that Fitzgerald's sole original charge was to investigate a possible violation of a 1982 federal statute that forbids revealing the identity of a covert agent. This seems to be an unreasonably limited view of what the CIA originally sought, which was an investigation of how classified material became public. In other words, the argument is just spin.
Another spin that is widely circulated is that Libby (and presumably Karl Rove, the other putative leaker) didn't really do any harm because Valerie Plame's identity was already known to lots of people. This is the sort of argument that can come back to haunt you, because it is susceptible to factual rebuttal. Press reports late in the week revealed that FBI agents had talked to Plame's neighbors and friends about this very question. If newspaper accounts can be believed, the neighbors did not know about her secret life prior to Novak's column.
Joe Wilson nailed the coffin shut on this malicious little lie in an OpEd published the day after Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference. "But on July 14, 2003, our lives were irrevocably changed. That was the day columnist Robert Novak identified Valerie as an operative, divulging a secret that had been known only to me, her parents and her brother." Unless the spinners want to claim Wilson is lying about this (not that they are incapable of doing so), another falsehood bites the dust.
In addition to Wilson himself, admittedly an interested party, there is a long list of organizations and writers who made worthwhile contributions to the discussion over the past several weeks. We might make mention of two or three who did superlative work.
One organization that was the subject of an earlier column here is Media Matters for America. Media Matters has done an excellent job debunking a long list of arguments made by Bush administration apologists. In two Web postings entitled, respectively, "Top CIA leak investigation falsehoods" and "Still more leak investigation falsehoods," Media Matters has done the job of cataloguing and responding to numerous claims. Everything from whether Joseph Wilson lied about who sent him to Niger, whether Plame nominated Wilson for that trip, or even whether Patrick Fitzgerald had to request that his mandate be broadened in order to get at Scooter Libby are answered. The Media Matters discussions can be accessed directly: at http://mediamatters.org/items/200510210008 and http://mediamatters.org/items/200510260002
In addition, Arianna Huffington's Website, www.huffingtonpost.com, has been a useful source for all manner of discussions, facts and viewpoints on this subject.
As the scandal has developed leak by leak, one blog previously unknown to me has turned out to be the proverbial breath of fresh air. "Firedoglake" is the product of Jane Hamsher and two other people who go by the names Loren and ReddHedd. Hamsher has been doing overall analysis, including media criticism. ReddHedd is apparently an attorney who once worked as a prosecutor. ReddHedd's contribution has been exceptional. She has been explaining the legal and technical issues of grand jury investigations as the story unfolds and has explained confusing revelations in terms of common prosecutorial strategies. Her site is at http://firedoglake.blogspot.com.
One lesson that will be remembered from this week is that politicians and pundits should be careful about spinning matters that may turn right around and bite them in a tender spot. The senior senator from the Lone Star state may be the best example. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R. Texas) made this comment to her Oct. 23 television audience: "I certainly hope that if there is going to be an indictment that says something happened, that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime..." Liberals still a little sensitive about the Clinton impeachment have been all over Hutchison for her exercise in hypocrisy.
From the media standpoint, the Libby indictment offers up an opportunity, a possibility if you will, for a better, more truthful discussion, particularly with regard to radio.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's performance on Friday was a powerful response to a series of arguments that have been bandied about with impunity - no harm was done to the national security, Plame was already long since outed, Fitzgerald is a partisan hack, Libby's acts were not serious - and which have now been authoritatively debunked.
From now on, we have a definitive test for who is a shill and who is a serious commentator. The shill is the one who resorts to any of these arguments without also referring to the counter arguments made so powerfully by Patrick Fitzgerald last Friday.