THE CHARGES of perjury and obstruction of justice filed yesterday against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby are serious and appear to be backed by substantial evidence. Mr. Libby was right to resign as Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, even as he is entitled to a presumption of innocence; he said yesterday he expected to be exonerated. It is particularly disturbing that the alleged falsehoods concerned conversations with journalists. Mr. Libby purportedly claimed that reporters told him the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame, when that classified information in fact came from Mr. Cheney and other administration officials.
Nevertheless, it is also a fact that Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, after substantially completing his two-year investigation, has brought no criminal charges in the leak of Ms. Plame's identity to journalists and its publication by columnist Robert D. Novak. Judging from the indictment, Mr. Libby was not Mr. Novak's source, and Mr. Libby himself is not charged with any wrongdoing in revealing Ms. Plame's identity to journalists. Though Mr. Fitzgerald says he has not wrapped up his work, that is the right outcome and one that reflects prudent judgment on his part.
The special counsel was principally investigating whether any official violated a law that makes it a crime to knowingly disclose the identity of an undercover agent. The public record offers no indication that Mr. Libby or any other official deliberately exposed Ms. Plame to punish her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Rather, Mr. Libby and other officials, including Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, apparently were seeking to combat the sensational allegations of a critic. They may have believed that Ms. Plame's involvement was an important part of their story of why Mr. Wilson was sent to investigate claims that Iraq sought uranium ore from Niger, and why his subsequent -- and mostly erroneous -- allegations that the administration twisted that small part of the case against Saddam Hussein should not be credited. To criminalize such discussions between officials and reporters would run counter to the public interest.
That said, the charges Mr. Fitzgerald brought against Mr. Libby are not technicalities. According to the indictment, Mr. Libby lied to both the FBI and a grand jury. No responsible prosecutor would overlook a pattern of deceit like that alleged by Mr. Fitzgerald. The prosecutor was asked to investigate a serious question, and such obstructions are, as he said yesterday, like throwing sand in the umpire's face. In this case, they seem to have contributed to Mr. Fitzgerald's distressing decision to force a number of journalists to testify about conversations with a confidential source.
Both Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove appear to have allowed the White House spokesman to put out false information about their involvement. But nothing in this indictment suggests a broad-based conspiracy that requires endless further investigation by Congress or others. Nor does this case prove (or refute) charges that President Bush misled the country about the grounds for war. As Mr. Fitzgerald said yesterday: "This indictment is not about the war. . . . Anyone who's concerned about the war and has feelings for or against [it] shouldn't look to this criminal process for any answers or resolution of that."