Trump Is Right to Pardon Scooter Libby, an Innocent Man
President Trump has pardoned I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, convicted in 2007 of perjury and obstruction of justice. The president was right to do so. Mr. Libby’s conviction was a travesty.
Mr. Libby, who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, got caught up in a special counsel’s investigation about the disclosure to the press of a CIA agent’s identity. It appears Mr. Cheney was the investigation’s real target. Mr. Libby’s lawyers have said prosecutors offered to drop the charges against Mr. Libby if he would incriminate his boss. But, there was “no there, there.” Neither Mr. Libby nor Mr. Cheney had anything to do with the “leak” or with covering it up. No one was charged with a crime in the “outing” of the agent, Valerie Plame, and it’s not clear it was a crime.
The Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 makes it a crime to reveal the identity of a “covert” intelligence agent. Ms. Plame was a midlevel employee stationed at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. In early 2002, she urged her superiors to tap her husband, retired diplomat Joe Wilson, to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy processed uranium in Niger. The CIA interpreted Mr. Wilson’s report as supporting that claim, but a year later he publicly declared the evidence was dubious and became a vocal critic of President Bush’s Iraq policy.
The late Robert Novak wrote a column revealing that Mr. Wilson had gone to Niger at Ms. Plame’s urging. Mr. Wilson asserted that the revelation of his wife’s CIA employment was meant to punish him. But her identity was well-known around Washington, suggesting that she had not taken “affirmative measures” to conceal her “intelligence relationship to the United States,” a necessary element of the crime.
Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed by his friend James Comey, then deputy attorney general. From the start, Mr. Fitzgerald knew that the critical “leak” to Novak had come from then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. He nevertheless commenced an extensive investigation to “discover” what had happened.
The charges against Mr. Libby were based on his description of various conversations he had with journalists at the time, including the New York Times’s Judith Miller. Based on notes she had made containing the word “bureau” in association with Ms. Plame’s job, Ms. Miller became the only reporter to testify that Mr. Libby had discussed Ms. Plame’s CIA connection with her. Mr. Fitzgerald called her testimony “critical” in his closing argument to the jury, which found Mr. Libby guilty on four of five counts.
But Ms. Miller later realized her testimony had been mistaken. Ms. Plame published a memoir in late 2007, months after Libby’s trial. In Ms. Miller’s 2015 book, “A Reporter’s Story,” she writes that one particular point in Ms. Plame’s account immediately caught her eye: Ms. Plame’s CIA “cover” had been as an employee of a State Department bureau. Mr. Libby would have known the CIA has “divisions,” not “bureaus.” He could not, therefore, have been the person who revealed Ms. Plame’s CIA connection to Ms. Miller.
Ms. Miller did not recognize her mistake when preparing her trial testimony, because she did not know that Ms. Plame had a State Department cover. Had she known, she would not have claimed she and Mr. Libby had discussed Ms. Plame’s CIA status. But Mr. Fitzgerald knew, and Ms. Miller believes he deliberately led her away from the truth.
All this means that Mr. Libby was telling the truth about his conversations with Ms. Miller, and that he did not deliberately mislead Mr. Fitzgerald’s grand jury or the FBI. For her part, Ms. Miller had not lied at Mr. Libby’s trial; she had given false testimony in good faith. “With the information about Plame’s cover that Fitzgerald had withheld, it was hard not to conclude that my testimony had been wrong,” she writes. “Had I helped convict an innocent man?”
She had. It is now established that Mr. Libby never told any reporter about Ms. Plame, never knew that she had any special status, and had no reason to lie about any of this—and that the “leak” had caused no harm to the CIA, its personnel or operations. But the time for Mr. Libby’s appeals has long passed.
One court partially righted the wrong Mr. Libby suffered. In 2016, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, a local tribunal, restored Mr. Libby’s license to practice law in the nation’s capital. This action was based on a report by the D.C. Bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which specifically noted that Mr. Libby had consistently maintained his innocence, that he never denied the seriousness of the offenses of which he was convicted, and that Ms. Miller, as a “key prosecution witness . . . has changed her recollection of the events in question.”
Long ago, Hillary Clinton’s friend and law partner Vince Foster wrote that Washington was a place where “ruining people is considered sport.” He left those words in a note found after his 1993 suicide. Foster’s observation is undeniably true—but should not be. Mr. Trump promised to change the way Washington works, and has himself experienced the full force of this detestable Washington pastime since before he took office. By granting Scooter Libby a full pardon, he has taken a step toward changing Washington’s culture, and he has righted a grievous wrong.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
Appeared in the April 14, 2018, print edition.