Some Explaining to Do

Special to
Wednesday, March 7, 2007; 1:14 PM

It's time for President Bush and Vice President Cheney to come clean about their roles in the White House's outing of a CIA agent and the ensuing cover-up.

It's actually long past time. But with former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby's conviction on charges of perjury and obstruction yesterday, the stench of corruption has taken formal residence at the White House.

The president and vice president can pretend it's not there, and can continue to hide behind their weak and transparent excuse for not commenting on an "ongoing criminal investigation".

But the trial is over. The investigation is over. And the conviction of a liar in their midst has made it more imperative than ever that the leaders of this country fully address the American people's legitimate concerns that the lies in question were intended to hide from public view even deeper skullduggery at the highest levels of the administration.

As special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald noted in his closing arguments (see my Feb. 21 column, The Cloud Over Cheney) Libby's lies have left all sorts of issues unresolved.

Cheney was at the fevered center of the effort to discredit administration critic Joseph Wilson, which resulted in the exposure of his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative. Indeed, Cheney was the first person to tell Libby about Plame. Cheney authored talking points that quite possibly encouraged Libby and others to mention Plame to reporters. Cheney was the only person to whom Libby confided his implausible cover story -- that he had first heard about Plame from NBC's Tim Russert. And at Cheney's request, Bush secretly declassified portions of a National Intelligence Reports so that Libby could leak them to Judith Miller of the New York Times.

The White House yesterday once again trotted out its "ongoing criminal matter" rationale. But that was never much of an excuse and at this point it is utterly pathetic. Any danger of influencing the investigation or the jury pool, to the extent that was ever a legitimate concern, is past. The chances of a retrial are almost nonexistent. In reviewing a conviction, an appellate court cannot look outside the trial record. Fitzgerald says he and his fellow prosecutors are going back to their day jobs.

And there is an enormous public-policy factor here -- something more important than the vague, theoretical possibility of influencing a fair trial. Just for example, no executive of any company would be allowed by his shareholders to remain mum on a top aide's indictment -- not to mention conviction. He'd be fired.

Why are Bush and his aides hiding behind such hollow excuses? Probably because they know that if they did talk, it might just make things worse. Arguably, they still don't think Libby did anything wrong, putting them in the awkward position of disagreeing with a federal jury's verdict. And in explaining what they say really happened, they might risk either exposing more unseemly facts or being caught in a lie.

But the main reason they are hiding behind these excuses is that they can. There's been no public cost to them from not talking.

That, of course, is where the news media come in. When the public has a need to know and the government won't meet it, the media are at their most righteous in demanding information -- and, when being denied, in constantly reminding everyone that the government is stonewalling.

Reporters yesterday glibly expressed no surprise by the White House's refusal to comment. The proper response, however, is sustained outrage, until every last critically important question is addressed.

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