Valerie Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, was the author of an article that appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times in early July 2003 challenging the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq and, in particular, its claim that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium in Africa as part of a program to build weapons of mass destruction. Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department, led an intensive and highly publicized investigation that in the end did not charge anyone with disclosing Ms. Plame’s identity but did indict Mr. Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice. Some of Mr. Libby’s friends and supporters accused Mr. Fitzgerald of abusing his powers as a special prosecutor. A good case can be made, however, that the trial of Mr. Libby performed a public service by providing the American public with important insights into the dynamics of the administration.
First, testimony in the Libby trial dramatized the extraordinary influence exercised by Vice President Cheney, who has, in effect, redefined the office of vice president. Previous presidents often spoke of their vice presidents as partners, but in fact the duties of those vice presidents remained largely ceremonial except for moments of extraordinary crisis, like an assassination attempt on the president. By contrast, the testimony of a number of Mr. Libby’s associates confirmed the impression that Mr. Cheney’s office was a separate center of power within the administration, sometimes even in tension with the president’s office and cabinet officials. It was Mr. Cheney’s office that put pressure on the intelligence community to support preconceived policy positions. It was the vice president’s office that was determined to discredit Ambassador Wilson as a critic of the rationale for the invasion of Iraq.
In recent months, this role of the vice president as a separate source of policy has become more obvious, as Mr. Cheney hails the enormous success achieved in Iraq and issues a public warning on his trip to Asia that all options are on the table in dealing with Iran, even as the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, seeks to assure the nation and the world that the United States is not planning any military action against Iran.
Second, testimony in the Libby trial by members of the Bush administration gives the lie to the assertion by the president in the summer of 2003 that any member of the administration involved in leaking Ms. Plame’s identity to journalists would be immediately dismissed. As a matter of fact, Ms. Plame’s identity was a subject of common gossip within different offices in the administration and in the frequent conversations between members of the administration, some in the White House and others in the State Department, and favored members of the Washington press corps.
Finally, testimony in the Libby trial has occasioned some soul-searching by journalists on the value of confidential sources in government. Instead of aiding authentic investigative reporting, the constraints of confidentiality can reduce the journalist to the role of publicist for the favored viewpoints of administration officials. Writing in The New York Observer, Nicholas von Hoffman cast a skeptical eye on the insistence of establishment journalists that they must protect the confidentiality of their sources, even to the extent of going to jail, as Judith Miller, the former Washington correspondent for The New York Times, did for 85 days before Mr. Libby released her from the promise of confidentiality. While the full story of the campaign to discredit a critic of the administration may never be known with complete satisfaction, the testimony given in the Libby trial paints a disturbing portrait of an administration and a Washington culture that does not serve the American people well. Such knowledge may not be reassuring, but it is healthy for a democracy.