United States v. I. Lewis Libby(Welcome to FDL Book Salon, where today we are privileged to have Murray Waas and Jeff Lomonaco online with us to discuss The Unived States v. I. Lewis Libby. As always, please keep the discussion on point. The Salon today is being introduced by Jeff Lomonaco, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. He became interested in the CIA leak investigation via his interest in how democracies go to war, especially how wars – and the Iraq war in particular – are justified in public debate. JFT)

On behalf of Murray and myself, I’d like to thank Jane, Christy and Jim and the whole FDL crew for the opportunity to participate in the Book Salon.

The principal aim of the The United States v. I. Lewis Libby is to present as accurate and accessible a record as possible of the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s trial on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements stemming from his and others’ role in blowing the cover of CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson. The book amounts, I believe, to the single best record we have thus far of the conduct and character of the most powerful and the most secretive Office of the Vice President in the history of the United States. The trial and grand jury testimony show a somewhat beleaguered OVP intensely focused on responding to Joe Wilson, but unaware of much of what Cheney and Libby themselves were doing separately from the others, most notably planning to disclose classified information to New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003.

It is also an extraordinary portrait of the Bush administration at the moment of its initial unraveling in July 2003, as it went into a crisis of integrity and credibility over its war in Iraq from which it has not yet, and presumably will never, recover. Libby’s notes introduced into evidence recorded the senior staff meetings where Karl Rove, Stephen Hadley and others sought the most effective response to Wilson as well as to a CIA determined not to shoulder all the blame for the infamous 16 words the claim that Saddam Hussein had recently sought uranium in Africa. And then-White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer confirmed what had long been suspected: that the very dramatic press conference on July 7, 2003 the day after Wilson published his op-ed criticizing the administration at which he backed off, for the first time, the State of the Union’s 16 words reflected the uncertain decision of the administration to no longer stand behind the most important speech the President gives each year. (p. 150)

It was at lunch that very day that Libby told Fleischer, the White House spokesperson, that Joe Wilson’s wife–whom Fleischer believed Libby called “Valerie Plame,” though he wasn’t entirely sure–worked at the CIA, indicating that the information was “hush hush” and “on the QT,” precisely the kind of juicy news a press secretary might slip to a reporter. Right now the controversy over Libby’s conduct is focused on learning this week whether or not he will go directly to jail and, especially, on whether or not President Bush should and will pardon Libby.

Needless to say, if you haven’t been paying close attention, the trial book is the best way to determine what you think about that question. But I suspect that’s not something that applies to most readers at FDL, which has stayed admirably focused on the CIA leak investigation all along and provided historic coverage of the trial itself. (I noted what an event in the history of the blogosphere FDL’s liveblogging of the trial was here.So I will talk about the substance of the book more generally.

The bulk of the book is an edited version of the trial transcript, carefully cut down from its original size of nearly one million words to a more manageable and readable length, along with the most important and illuminating of the extraordinary documentary evidence presented at the trial. Murray has simply owned this story since the beginning with his ability to get sources and documents no one else can. The book has an excellent introduction entitled “The Last Compartment” which emphasizes what I think is at the heart of the case: the compartmentalized effort of Vice President Dick Cheney and Libby, his most important adviser, to respond to Joe Wilson’s criticisms of the OVP over its role in publicly justifying the Iraq war in part by disclosing to reporters that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. We also offer a variety of editorial aids to making your way through the transcript.

Simply as a legal event, the trial was extraordinary. A defendant who was the most powerful adviser to the most powerful vice president in history. An impressively no-nonsense and judicious judge. A federal prosecutor whom the judge called “one of the most scrupulous prosecutors I have had appear before me” (p. 89) and whose ranking as “undistinguished” by a Bush Department of Justice apparatchik evoked a nation-wide derisive guffaw. A defense team of some of the best lawyers in the country, the kind most defendants can only dream about having. (One of the real pleasures of working on the book was following the incisive questioning and distinctive rhetorical performances of the lawyers.) A jury about which the judge said, at the close of the trial, “I can’t say I have seen a better group of jurors who, obviously, conscientiously listened to the evidence and went about the business of deciding this case as instructed.” (p. 536) A parade of witnesses composed principally of powerful government officials and the most prominent journalists of our time. This was our criminal justice system at its best and most dramatic.

In light of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s determination that he does not have discretion to release a public report of his investigation, the transcript of the trial is the closest substitute we are likely to get for such a report of the course of his investigation. The epigraph to the book is a line from Fitzgerald’s absolutely extraordinary rebuttal closing: “You know, there is talk about a cloud over the Vice President. There is a cloud over the White House as to what happened. Don’t you think the FBI, the Grand Jury, the American people are entitled to a straight answer?” (p. ix) (The epigraph in fact leaves out that opening colloquial “You know,” which I actually rather like.) Fitzgerald was, of course, talking in the first instance about the context of the investigation itself and Libby’s appearances before the grand jury. But there is no doubt that we are entitled to a straight answer, and as far as Libby’s conduct goes, the record of the trial is as close as we are likely to get.

Whatever the case, let me note that it was a pleasure and an honor to work with Murray. And we’re both looking forward to answering any questions of yours we can in comments.