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Will indictment shatter GOP security image?

Some Democrats believe the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security aide Lewis Libby Friday gives them a cudgel to beat the Republicans with: the notion that when it comes to national security the party of President Bush and Vice President Cheney is not to be trusted
US Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald briefs reporters on the Libby indictment Friday.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images
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For the moment, the big prize — President Bush’s strategist Karl Rove — has gone un-indicted and Democrats’ hopes for his political demise must await fulfillment.

But some Democrats believe the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. on Friday gives them a cudgel to beat the Republicans with: the notion that when it comes to national security the party of President Bush and Vice President Cheney is not to be trusted.

The indictment accuses Libby of “misleading and deceiving” a grand jury as to when and how he “acquired and subsequently disclosed to the media information concerning the employment of Valerie Wilson by the CIA.”

Valerie Wilson, who is also known as Valerie Plame, is the wife of former diplomat Joseph Wilson. The CIA sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger in 2002 to look into reports that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium.

After the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Joseph Wilson became a prominent critic of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.

Was an agent 'outed'?
In an hour-long briefing for reporters Friday, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said, “We have not made any allegation that Mr. Libby knowingly, intentionally ‘outed’ a covert agent. We have not charged that.  So I’m not making that assertion.”

According to him, Libby’s false testimony to FBI and to the grand jury made it impossible to get to the truth of whether Libby had knowingly broken the law against divulging secret information by revealing Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment.

He stressed the national security implications of the indictment.

“It is important that a CIA officer’s identity be protected, that it be protected not just for the officer, but for the nation’s security,” Fitzgerald said.

“They run a risk when they work for the CIA that something bad can happen to them, but they have to make sure that they don’t run the risk that something bad can happen to them for something done by their own fellow government employees,” he added.

But replying to a reporter’s question about whether the indictment was a “vindication” of the argument that Bush took the nation into the Iraq war on false premises, Fitzgerald said, “This indictment is not about the war…. People who believe fervently in the war effort, people who oppose it, people who have mixed feelings about it should not look to this indictment… for any vindication of how they feel.”

Perceived GOP edge on national security
Since the 1980s, but especially since Sept. 11, 2001 polling data has suggested that voters trust the Republicans more than the Democrats on national security issues.

The presidential bid of retired Gen. Wesley Clark last year was premised almost entirely on the Democrats’ perceived need for a strong symbol of national security at the top of their ticket.

The same need for national security symbolism drove 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s staging of the Democratic national convention last summer which focused mostly on his service in Vietnam War.

Rove, who was not indicted Friday but apparently remains under the prosecutor’s scrutiny, underscored the GOP edge on national security in a speech he gave to the Republican National Committee four months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We can go the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America,” Rove said. The issue seemed to work for Republicans in the 2002 elections, in which they regained control of the Senate and gained eight seats in the House.

But now the Democrats, brandishing the indictment of Libby, argue that Bush and the Republicans endanger national security.

A case of treason?
Some rank-and-file Democrats call the leak of Valerie Wilson's CIA employment "treason." If so, the case would be far more grave than the Watergate scandal of the Nixon era, the 1987 Iran-contra affair involving giving U.S. weapons to Iran to help in its war against Iraq, or the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton liaison.

Presidential historian and Maryland Democratic Senate contender Allan Lichtman said, “It borders on treason. To compromise national security for political revenge certainly borders on treason.”

Lichtman said that while the Libby indictment lacks the breadth of the Watergate scandal or the Iran-contra affair, “it has greater depth because it goes to decisions about war and peace and how America is governed.”

“A chief architect of the war in Iraq, Scooter Libby… used access to national security information not as weapons against our nation’s enemies, but as weapons against someone who dared to ask tough questions of a dishonest policy,” Kerry said in a statement Friday.

Joe Wilson served as an aide to Kerry in last year’s presidential campaign.

Kerry drew the inevitable Nixon parallel:  “Not only was America misled into war, but a Nixonian effort to silence dissent has now left Americans wondering whether they can trust anything this Administration has to say.”

Parallel to Hiss case
If Democrats are correct that the Libby indictment implicates Cheney’s aide in treason or in deliberately endangering U.S. national security, perhaps the closest analogy of this scandal to an earlier one is to the Alger Hiss scandal.

A former official of the State Department in Franklin Roosevelt's administration, Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 for lying about his role as a Soviet agent in 1930s and 1940s.

In Republican rhetoric of the 1950s, Hiss became the personification of what they called “20 years of treason.” Material in Soviet archives revealed since Gorbachev's glasnost provides evidence that Hiss was a Soviet spy. 

The Niger angle was a small part of a bigger case Bush and Cheney used to justify invasion of Iraq. 

But Niger and Joe Wilson became a cause celebre, partly through Wilson’s own indefatigable efforts, partly because the attack on Wilson reminded people that not only were weapons of mass destruction not found after the invasion of Iraq, but that the invasion didn’t lead to a peaceful and stable outcome.

Libby's blunder
The indictment suggests that whatever else Libby may have done, he made a costly tactical blunder by becoming pre-occupied with Joe Wilson.

Had Libby ignored Wilson, the self-promoting ex-ambassador may well have worn out his welcome with the news media. A bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report released last July casts doubt on Wilson’s credibility.

As for Wilson’s Niger trip, the Senate Intelligence Committee report says that within the intelligence community “no one believed it added a great deal of new information to the Iraq-Niger uranium story.” The CIA didn’t think it was worth briefing Cheney on Wilson’s findings from his trip.

But Libby seemed driven to his fateful blunder by his annoyance at Wilson’s July 6, 2003 op-ed piece in the New York Times criticizing the war.

In his grand jury testimony, Libby said, “Also, it was important to me to let them (reporters) know that (he didn’t know Valerie Wilson was a CIA employee) because what I was telling them was that I don't know Mr. Wilson. We didn't ask for his mission…. I didn't see his report (written after Wilson returned from Niger).”

The indictment claims that Libby did in fact know Valerie Wilson was a CIA employee and that what he was telling reporters in June and July of 2003 was a jumble of lies. The indictment also charges that Libby later lied to the grand jury about his lies to reporters.

Thus a misguided political move against a war critic came back to have far bigger political reverberations and create an opening for the Democrats two years later.