By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Shortly before he was inaugurated for his second term, President Bush was asked why no one was held responsible for the mistakes of the first. "We had an accountability moment," he replied, "and that's called the 2004 elections."
Two years and a stinging midterm election later, Bush is having another accountability moment, but this one isn't working out as well. The conviction of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has coincided with a string of investigations into the mistreatment of injured soldiers and the purge of federal prosecutors, putting the operations of his administration into harsh relief.
The timing may be coincidental, but the confluence of events has revived a pattern largely missing through the six years of Bush's presidency, in which high-level officials accused of wrongdoing are grilled, fired and sometimes even jailed. For an administration that has been unusually opaque and mostly insulated from aggressive congressional oversight and prosecutorial investigation, it may seem like a gut-churning harbinger.
While the president's aides watch uncomfortably as one hearing after another plays out on Capitol Hill, the Libby conviction hit a nerve inside the White House. The onetime chief of staff to Vice President Cheney was well liked in the West Wing, and the notion of him going to prison dispirited the colleagues glued to televisions as the verdict was announced. Bush watched in the Oval Office with aides Joshua B. Bolten and Dan Bartlett, then instructed Bartlett to put out a statement expressing sadness for Libby.
"This has been a huge cloud over the White House," said Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist close to the Bush team. "It caused a lot of intellectual, emotional and political energy to be expended when it should have been expended on the agenda. They're never going to fully recover from this. If you're looking at legacy, this episode gets prominently mentioned in every recap of the Bush administration, much like Iran-contra and Monica Lewinsky."
The Libby case never reached the level of those scandals, of course, but it became a proxy for many in Washington eager to re-litigate the origins of the Iraq war. If Libby lied about his role in the CIA leak case, critics eagerly used that to reinforce their argument that Bush led the nation to war on false pretenses, in effect attacking the centerpiece of his presidency.
"This verdict brings accountability at last for official deception and the politics of smear and fear," said Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Bush's Democratic challenger in 2004.
While the White House publicly withheld comment, some Bush advisers expressed outrage, seeing a double standard and citing the documents-smuggling case of former Clinton national security adviser Samuel R. Berger. "Scooter didn't do anything," said former Cheney counselor Mary Matalin. "And his personal record and service are impeccable. How do you make sense of a system where a security principal admits to stuffing classified docs in his pants and says, 'I'm sorry,' and a guy who is rebutting a demonstrable partisan liar is going through this madness?"
A senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the president ordered aides not to comment publicly, disputed the idea that Bush has escaped scrutiny in the past. "I don't buy the conventional wisdom that we haven't had accountability in the past," he said. "Is it different because Democrats are in charge? Of course. . . . But that's fine, that's a reality that we're prepared to deal with."
No one has been quicker to declare the return of accountability than Democrats, who are using their newfound subpoena power to sharp effect in hauling up Pentagon officials to answer for poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and in giving fired U.S. attorneys a venue to blame their dismissals on administration politics. In two months, Democrats have held 81 hearings on Iraq. "This is just the beginning," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "What a difference a year makes."
But accountability politics can also be dangerous to the touch. Washington became consumed during the presidency of Emanuel's onetime boss, Bill Clinton, whose administration came under scrutiny of at least seven independent counsels and even more Republican congressional committees. The atmosphere was so toxic that Clinton adviser Paul Begala put an attorney on retainer before even joining the White House staff.
The Republican-led impeachment of Clinton for lying under oath about his affair with Lewinsky backfired politically, and Washington grew so leery that it let the independent-counsel law lapse. When Bush was elected along with a Congress controlled by the same party, a new era was ushered in. With occasional exceptions, such as the commission that looked into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush largely escaped the klieg-light atmosphere. No senior officials were fired for the missing weapons in Iraq or the Abu Ghraib abuse. Three officials blamed by some for mishandling Iraq were given Medals of Freedom.
That began changing after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005 and congressional Republicans investigated the administration's slow response. The change accelerated with the Democratic victory in the November elections. The next day, Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after months of deteriorating conditions in Iraq. Rumsfeld's successor, Robert M. Gates, has proved willing to fire others for mismanaging Walter Reed.
The risk for Democrats would be overplaying the accountability hand. Their attempts to impose limits on Bush's ability to fight the war have collapsed repeatedly and left them unable to fashion a coherent approach to the most serious issue in the country. Some Republicans suggested that the public could tire of repeated hearings such as those held this week and write them off to partisanship.
"They bring up sort of old Washington," said former Bush aide Nicolle Wallace. "The Democrats have to walk a fine line and be careful. People don't want to turn on the TV and see every story being about the obstruction of people trying to do things. . . . The people who will stand out in Washington are the ones who will look forward."
Two people looking forward with choices to make are Bush and Libby. The president came under instant pressure from conservatives to pardon his former aide. "Justice demands that Bush issue a pardon and lower the curtain on an embarrassing drama that shouldn't have lasted beyond its opening act," National Review said within hours of the verdict.
And Libby may have to decide if he has anything else to tell authorities. John Q. Barrett, an Iran-contra prosecutor who teaches at St. John's University, recalled James W. McCord Jr. in Watergate and Alan Fiers in Iran-contra, who under threat of prison recanted past versions of events. If the jury was right that Libby lied, Barrett said, "he's now sitting wherever he is with cold sweat and troubled stomach and truth that he hasn't told. . . . Whatever the chips, if he held them and didn't lay them down, this may be the moment to decide."