The indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, has given the Valerie Plame scandal the pre-requisite indictee, a face for this ongoing drama. What is more troubling, however, has been the absence of a heroic or even positive figure.
On its face, this affair had all of the elements of a blockbuster political drama. An embattled president is accused of lying to the American people to take the country to war. Shadowy political operatives launch a campaign to punish the man who uncovered the lie by destroying the career of his wife, a covert CIA operative. Indeed, even the name — the Valerie Plame affair — carried a certain sexy and intriguing appeal. By this point, Washington should be crawling with book and movie agents except for the one missing element: a single redeeming character.
Initially, it appeared that the scandal would have two ready-made heroes in the Wilsons. Former ambassador Joseph Wilson had publicly revealed that there was no evidence to support the president’s claim that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy weapons-grade uranium in Niger — a critical justification for the Iraq war. In the firestorm that followed, political figures struck back — not at Wilson, but at his wife by discussing her position as a CIA officer.
Handsome and successful, the Wilsons seemed the perfect characters. Yet, they soon began to fade as heroic figures. The toothy couple posed for pictures in a Vanity Fair spread a few months after her identity was revealed. The photo of the two preening in a Jaguar convertible with the White House in the background seemed a curious choice for a covert operative worried about her identity. Then there was their financial support for President Bush’s opponents. In the end, they seemed more Beltway bandits than citizen soldiers.
While he first appeared a villain due to his use of false information to justify the war, President Bush appeared to rehabilitate his character when the scandal broke. He steadfastly vowed that he would fire anyone involved in the disclosure of Plame’s identity and the White House stressed this bright line commitment to ethics in later press briefings. Bush, however, quickly backpedaled on his promise when it became clear that Libby and presidential adviser Karl Rove were involved — despite denials of such involvement by the White House. The result was a nosebleed of a drop from a zero-tolerance policy to something more befitting Jimmy Hoffa: The president would only fire his aides if they were actually convicted of a crime. Since such convicts would almost certainly be incarcerated, the new pledge was rightfully denounced as a meaningless, if not ridiculous, gesture.
As the Wilsons declined as inspiring figures, New York Times reporter Judith Miller seemed to step forward to take the high ground. Ordered to reveal her sources on the Plame affair, Miller refused and went to jail for 85 days in the name of journalistic privilege. Many columnists, including myself, wrote in support of her stand.
Despite the public support, Miller’s emergence as First Amendment heroine always seemed a bit too well-timed. Her career was in the Dumpster because of her controversial coverage and conduct during the Iraq invasion. Miller had written extensively in support of the administration claims of a WMD program in Iraq.
After her reporting was found to be wrong (and The New York Times issued an apology for the coverage to its readers), Miller seemed a bit too eager to go to jail. This suspicion was recently confirmed when she finally agreed to reveal her source: Libby. For those following the scandal, the revelation was itself scandalous. Libby had previously signed a waiver of confidentiality, and later his attorneys personally reaffirmed the waiver to Miller’s legal team.
Various other reporters accepted the waiver and testified. Only Miller refused. It is now clear that there was no reason for Miller to go to jail, and her heroic stand appears to be a type of Joan-of-Arc syndrome. Even her editors recently accused Miller of misleading them on her true role and “entanglements” with Libby.
To make matters worse, Miller agreed to identify him as a “former Hill staffer.” Calling Libby a former Hill staffer is like anonymously quoting Vice President Cheney as a “former rancher.” It was designed to shield the involvement of one of the highest administration officials.
Miller’s discrediting left the cast of this drama devoid of a positive figure. For their parts, Libby and Rove struggled to prove that they may have been unethical but they were not technically criminal in their conduct.
Columnist Robert Novak, who first revealed Plame’s identity, has admitted that a CIA source asked him not to reveal her name. Still, Novak chose to do so in a clearly senseless act. Novak then refused to tell other journalists whether he has cooperated with prosecutors. His decision to out Plame has now ended her career and embroiled the Bush administration in a two-year scandal that cost millions to investigate.
The Plame affair now looks like a political version of Murder on the Orient Express, where we find in the end that everyone harbored a dark motive and contributed to the final deed.
Perhaps it is as good as a Beltway drama gets, but it would have been nice if we had even a minor character left at the end worth caring about.