Friday we learned that, according to prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Scooter Libby told a series of bald lies to his grand jury. And so now we are hearing the old choral reminder, “it’s the cover-up, stupid.” Cover-ups are, by general acclaim, worse than the crimes they try to hide. This piece from today’s Times Week in Review is typical — it opens with Charles Colson of Watergate infamy declaring, “I don’t know why people don’t learn this lesson.”
According to this line of thinking, the denizens of the Beltway who keep getting caught engaging in cover-ups are all stricken with some similar malady: expedience cut with arrogance and the sense of invulnerability that comes with power.
The problem with this analysis is that it fails to engage with the practical, temporal dynamics of most cover-ups, in which the idea is not to cover something up indefinitely but to cover it up through some significant date — most often, an election. The part of the Watergate cover-up that mattered most was the part that took place between the June 1972 break-in and the November 1972 election; Watergate, we too often forget, was one incident in a massive campaign of election-tampering.
Similarly, Scooter Libby’s apparent lies need to be understood not in the abstract but in their place on the electoral calendar. The Bush administration’s paramount goal through the 2004 election cycle was to prevent an open national debate on the mistakes it had made in the run-up to the Iraq war. When Joe Wilson’s whistleblowing threatened to begin such a debate, Cheney’s office sprung into action; when the smear campaign backfired, the White House damage-control effort aimed to limit any fallout till after the election. That’s why we heard all the broad denials that look so incautious today: the lid had to be kept on this pot (just as the Senate had to be prevented from releasing, or even preparing, reports about White House misuse of intelligence data).
How important — and successful — all this was can be seen in this quote from Fitzgerald’s Friday press conference:
|FITZGERALD: I would have wished nothing better that, when the subpoenas were issued in August 2004, witnesses testified then, and we would have been here in October 2004 instead of October 2005. No one would have went to jail.|
Here the prosecutor was talking about the delays to his investigation that stemmed from the refusal of journalists, most notably the New York Times’ Judith Miller, to testify. But he also reminds us that, under other circumstances — in which journalists had construed their public responsibilities differently and government officials hadn’t chosen the coverup route — his investigation could well have delivered its verdict on the threshold of a criticially important election.
Maybe, in the absence of a coverup, Fitzgerald would have been left with nothing and no one to indict; or maybe he’d have been able to move more directly against the officials responsible for outing Valerie Plame. We’ll never know, of course. And so this alternate-history timeline of a 2004 election in which voters had a fuller picture of the Bush administration’s desperate, foolish, incompetent sell-the-war campaign remains unreadable.
Just as an act of perjury can thoroughly derail a criminal inquiry and make it impossible for the justice system to come to a clear determination of fact, so a coverup can, if it achieves a short-term goal, sometimes create new “facts on the ground” that no revelatory inquest or subsequent prosecution can roll back.
That is what Scooter Libby’s “coverup” achieved. It was one of the most significant of a series of “kick the can down the road” tactics that helped the Bush team eke out its 2004 win and hang on to power. Whether or not Libby ends up going to jail, I’d say he probably considers that a success.