Is President Trump telegraphing any messages to special counsel Robert Mueller in his pardon Friday of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney?
In 2003, none other than James Comey appointed a special counsel, Chicago prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, to investigate allegations that the identity of a covert CIA agent was leaked to the media for political purposes. Libby – ultimately Cheney, as Fitzgerald later made clear – was a target even though it later was discovered that the name of the agent, Valerie Plame, was leaked by State Department official Richard Armitage, which Fitzgerald knew early in the probe. Libby eventually was charged not with leaking, but with lying to the FBI.
So far, the only Trump administration official indicted in Mueller’s probe of alleged Russia-Trump campaign collusion also was charged with lying under oath, former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The White House, however, has repeatedly said it has no plan to pardon anyone charged in the Russia investigation.
Trump said in a White House statement Friday he doesn’t know Libby, but “for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly.”
“Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life,” the president said.
Then-President George Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence but didn’t pardon him. Since then, Libby has had his law license and voting rights restored.
In Flynn’s case, questions recently have been raised about the circumstances under which he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
NBC News veteran reporter Andrew Mitchell asked in a tweet Friday if the Libby pardon was “a prelude to pardons for the Mueller probe targets,” advising, “Buckle your seat belts.”
But did Trump have an even more nuanced message in mind, the spotlighting of an aggressive special counsel who failed to find any violation of the crime he was commissioned to investigate and apparently resorted to a questionable process-crime charge to justify his effort?
At the White House briefing Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if Trump’s pardon was a message to Mueller.
“Not at all. One case has nothing to do with the other. And every case should be viewed on its own merit,” Sanders said.
“Pardoning Libby was the right thing to do,” she continued. “After the witness recanted her testimony, the D.C. Court of Appeals panel unanimously voted to restore Mr. Libby’s bar membership after being presented credible evidence in support of his version of events, and it appears that that key prosecution witness, Judith Miller, changed her recollection of the events in question.”
The Bush-era special counsel Fitzgerald asserted that Libby lied to prosecutors, while the former Cheney aide insisted it was merely a matter of mistaken memory. Libby’s claim was backed by veteran New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who served three weeks in prison in the case for refusing to divulge sources.
Moreover, even the Washington Post’s editorial board came to the conclusion that the person most responsible for outing Plame was her husband, Joseph Wilson.
The narrative that had been advanced by establishment media was that Cheney and Libby deliberately blew the cover of Plame in retaliation for Wilson’s 2003 New York Times op ed contradicting the Bush administration’s famous assertion that Saddam Hussein had been trying to obtain yellowcake uranium in Niger to build an atomic bomb. The CIA had commissioned Wilson to travel to Niger in February 2002 to check out the allegations.
White House defenders insisted Bush officials were simply were setting the record straight about Wilson, seeking to put his credibility in context by pointing out it was Plame who helped him get the CIA consulting job. Wilson denied his wife’s role initially, but a bipartisan report by the Senate panel documented it.
Wilson declared in the Times column that his trip revealed the Iraq-Niger connection was dubious. But his oral report to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence actually corroborated the controversial “16 words” in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Fitzgerald launched a two-year investigation to find out who leaked Plame’s identity to columnist Robert Novak. Fitzgerald knew early in his investigation that it was Armitage who leaked her identity, but the special counsel made it clear his target was Cheney: The prosecutor promised to drop all charges if Libby would testify that the vice president had ordered the leak.
Fitzgerald’s name came up in January when the Chicago Tribune reported the FBI was discussing naming him a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information through a private email server.
Former FBI Director Comey, whose new book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” is dominating the conversation Friday in Washington, figures into the Libby case as well as the Mueller investigation.
It was Comey, as deputy attorney general in 2003, who hired Fitzgerald to investigate the Plame affair, and Comey whose leak to the New York Times of his notes of meetings with President Trump, along with his firing, played a major role in launching Mueller’s probe.
CNN anchor Jake Tapper responded Friday to Trump’s harsh criticism of Comey with a reference to the impending Libby pardon, implying that there was no justification for it.
“Calling @Comey a ‘proven LEAKER & LIAR’ while you’re about to pardon Scooter Libby, who leaked the identity of a covert CIA employee and was convicted for lying about it to the FBI – well, that’s quite a thing.”
Trump had tweeted earlier Friday: “James Comey is a proven LEAKER & LIAR. Virtually everyone in Washington thought he should be fired for the terrible job he did-until he was, in fact, fired. He leaked CLASSIFIED information, for which he should be prosecuted. He lied to Congress under OATH. He is a weak and … untruthful slime ball who was, as time has proven, a terrible Director of the FBI. His handling of the Crooked Hillary Clinton case, and the events surrounding it, will go down as one of the worst ‘botch jobs’ of history. It was my great honor to fire James Comey!”
Deadly consequences of ‘rigged case’
The Times reporter at the center of the Libby case, Miller, later wrote a book, “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey,” in which she explained how she came to recant her testimony about a conversation she had with Libby that Fitzgerald seized on to prosecute the former Cheney aide.
When Miller’s book was published, Arthur Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote in a column for National Review that the reporter presented solid evidence that Fitzgerald not only “rigged the case against Libby” but that his prosecution “inadvertently condemned thousands of Americans to be killed and maimed needlessly in Iraq.”
Herman explained that in the summer of 2003, Libby was “the one person of the seven in the president’s War Council arguing for a change in strategy in the American occupation of Iraq to deal with mounting violence and a growing Sunni insurgency.”
Libby, he noted, argued for a counterinsurgency using both U.S. and Iraqi forces. Eventually, the U.S. admitted failure and adopted the counterinsurgency strategy, “but only after we had lost more than 3,000 lives, and the public’s patience with the war was exhausted.”
No ‘cover’ was blown
The Fitzgerald probe focused on a 1982 act that made it illegal to blow a covert U.S. agent’s cover.
But at the time of the investigation, WND spoke to the Washington attorney who spearheaded the drafting of the law, Victoria Toensing, who argued that Plame’s circumstances didn’t meet the statute’s criteria.
Toensing and her husband, Joseph diGenova, were appointed by President Trump last month to join his legal team in the Russia investigation but withdrew because of unspecified conflicts.
Plame, according to Toensing – who worked on the 1982 CIA-related legislation in her role as chief counsel for the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – most likely was not a covert agent when White House aides mentioned her to reporters.
The federal code says the agent must have operated outside the United States within the previous five years. But Plame had given up her role as a covert agent nine years before the leak controversy, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
Kristof said the CIA brought Plame back to Washington in 1994 because the agency suspected her undercover security had been compromised by turncoat spy Aldrich Ames.
Wilson’s own book, “The Politics of Truth,” states he and Plame both returned from overseas assignments in June 1997 and never again were stationed overseas – placing them in Washington at least six years before the 2003 “outing.”
Moreover, asserted Toensing, for the law to be violated, White House aides would have had to intentionally reveal Plame’s identity with the knowledge that they were disclosing a covert agent.