By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007 2:28 PM
The conviction of former White House official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby today dealt another blow to President Bush's beleaguered administration and marked the latest chapter in a record of mistakes, missteps and setbacks growing out of an Iraq war policy that went badly awry.
The Libby verdict comes at an especially difficult time for the administration. Revelations about substandard living conditions and bureaucratic roadblocks for some wounded outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have thrown the administration on the defensive over the sensitive issue of how the government treats its war veterans.
At the same time, the administration is coming under fire in Congress over the firing of a group of U.S. attorneys for what critics say were political reasons. Several of those former U.S. attorneys were testifying on Capitol Hill as the Libby verdict was announced at the federal courthouse a few blocks away.
The conviction of someone who once served at such a high level in the White House carried symbolic power when it was handed down at noon. But in the immediate aftermath of the verdict, analysts on different sides of the political system debated whether history will judge the Libby decision as significant in and of itself.
There was agreement, however, that, even as a footnote in the record of the administration, the verdict was a reminder of just how much Iraq has enveloped the Bush presidency and damaged or destroyed the reputations and careers of so many who have been touched by it directly.
The cost to Libby could be extraordinarily personal and painful. Once the chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, Libby now faces possible time in prison. Only a successful appeal, which many lawyers would handicap as unlikely, or a presidential pardon, which Libby's friends will now begin to demand, could keep him from that fate.
But Libby is just one of a string of officials whose careers have been stamped by the war. Bush's presidential legacy is tied to the war. Former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld lost his job over the war. Other officials, including Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell have seen their reputations affected by the war.
The Libby case captivated official Washington as prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald began his investigation into how the name of CIA official Valerie Plame became public and whether her unmasking was deliberate retaliation by administration officials for criticism leveled at their war policy by her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
Fitzgerald's investigation proved terribly debilitating to the administration during the summer and fall of 2005, as it appeared that not only Libby but also White House senior adviser Karl Rove, the president's most influential political strategist, might face charges.
In the end, Rove never was prosecuted. And long after Libby was indicted, it was revealed that Plame's name was first leaked not by White House officials intent on revenge, but by then-deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage, who with Powell was often at odds with the White House and Cheney over Iraq policy.
The trial was equally irresistible as Washington spectacle. It featured a parade of big-name journalists such as NBC's Tim Russert brought in to testify on behalf of the prosecution that Libby had lied about his conversations, and the appearance of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She had gone to jail rather than reveal her sources to Fitzgerald, although eventually, with Libby's permission, she acknowledged that she was told about Plame by the former vice presidential adviser.
The verdict may well produce predictable political reactions on the left and right, with the left seeing it as vindication of their argument that the administration has gone to any lengths to challenge critics of his policy and the right seeing Fitzgerald as a runaway prosecutor who gained a conviction without charging anyone for the underlying crime of illegally revealing the identity of a covert intelligence official.
"I think as a historical matter it goes down as part of an Iraq policy gone bad," said a Republican lawyer, who asked not to be identified in order to speak more freely. "They tried to salvage the policy when criticized. They overreached and ended up with a serious black eye because of it."
Democrat Geoffrey Garin argued that the outcome of the Libby trial only adds to the political argument from his party that the Republicans should be turned out of the White House in 2008, to complete a clean sweep in Washington that began with the 2006 midterm elections.
"For the general electorate, this just adds to the feeling that there's something really rotten at the core of this administration and that the country needs a pretty big change," he said.
Others disputed whether the public was so riveted by the Libby trial that it will rise to that significance politically, calling it a Washington sideshow that will not ripple far beyond the banks of the Potomac.
But even some Republicans sense that the administration is a diminishing force and that every new setback, whether today's verdict or the Walter Reed scandal, adds to the pressure on Republicans looking ahead to the next election to separate themselves even more from the administration.
Libby likely will pay a significant price for what happened in the summer of 2003 as the administration saw its Iraq policy under serious attack for the first time. But his is part of a much larger story that is still being written as the country wrestles with the most unpopular war since Vietnam.