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Originally published July 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 8, 2007 at 11:00 AM


Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

"Scooter" is small potatoes

All this fascination with "Scooter" Libby leaves me bored. Several of my colleagues say the Libby story is big, big, big, and obviously...

All this fascination with "Scooter" Libby leaves me bored. Several of my colleagues say the Libby story is big, big, big, and obviously lots of editors agree with them.

The July 3 New York Times devoted much of the front page and a full inside page to Bush commuting Libby's sentence. In the past year, The Seattle Times has run 88 stories with the words "Scooter Libby" and several more with his official name, I. Lewis Libby.

I tried to explain the Libby business to a person who had not been following it — in other words, to a normal American. It was difficult. The attitude was: Why do I need to know this?

Maybe you don't. But here is the gist of it:

One of the reasons given for attacking Iraq was a report that Iraqi agents had been trying to buy uranium soils in the African state of Niger. To check this out, the CIA sent a former diplomat, Joseph Wilson, to Niger. He determined the Iraqis had not been there. Bush, however, told the world otherwise, and we went to war.

Wilson was angry about that, and started to circulate his story, and in July 2003 told it on the op-ed page of The New York Times. Meanwhile, White House people were whispering to reporters that Wilson's wife was in the CIA. It looked as if they were trying to punish Wilson, who was retired, by blowing the cover on his wife, who was still working.

Some said it showed just how nasty the Bush people were. It is also a federal crime to blow the cover of a CIA agent, a law that might apply in this case.

A special prosecutor was hired. He found no conspiracy to punish Wilson. He did find several leakers, including Bush adviser Karl Rove, but he didn't file charges against any of them for leaking. He prosecuted only Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff — for lying about leaking.

Lying is a kind of backstop offense. Half a century ago, Alger Hiss was convicted of lying under oath and sent to federal prison. Prosecutors had the goods on him for being a Soviet spy, but the statute of limitations had run out. They got him for lying, but his real crime was spying.

Nailing a spy is one thing. But a leaker? Washington, D.C., is full of leakers. Are we to let off Karl Rove and treat Libby as a big, national story? Why? Here are the answers I am given:

He's a government official. He lied. Isn't that enough?

No, it isn't. We teach our kids that all lies are wrong, because lying undermines the parent-child relationship. But government is not our parent. Sometimes we lie to it, to cover up things that are none of its business. Sometimes it lies to us.

Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky. Eisenhower lied about Francis Gary Powers, the spy pilot. In the election of 1940, FDR lied about his intention to never, never, never send our boys into foreign wars.

To judge a lie, ask what it accomplishes. Maybe Libby's lie deserves punishment, but it's small potatoes.

But it's a crime to lie to government investigators, or under oath.

Getting a person to lie is a prosecutor's trick. That's how the feds nailed Martha Stewart, whom they accused of a stock transaction that victimized investors. Her interrogators didn't have to prove she had committed a crime against investors; her interrogators questioned her until she committed a "crime" against them. I can't get excited about such "crimes."

But the Libby case tells us how we got into the war.

Not really. The liberals who insist on this should take the word of The Washington Post, which editorialized that the case tells "nothing about the war in Iraq." It also tells nothing about the Bush administration we didn't already know.

Dear liberals: If you want to talk about the war, hitch up your pants and talk about the war. In Iraq, people are being killed, crippled, widowed and orphaned. Forget "Scooter" Libby.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is Listen to a Q&A with the author at, links to editorial and opinion.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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