What took so long?
Ten days to figure out that Scooter Libby lied to the FBI and the grand jury when he said he learned about Valerie Plame, CIA operative and wife of war critic Joseph Wilson, from Tim Russert and not Dick Cheney?
Ten days to figure out that no, Libby did not confuse the vice president with the moderator of "Meet the Press"?
The evidence was hardly equivocal. Eight witnesses, including an undersecretary of state, two CIA officials, two top Cheney aides, two reporters and former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, testified that they discussed Valerie Plame by name with Libby in the month before her identity was made public. A juror said they concluded that Libby was told about Plame nine times, and that Vice President Cheney literally dictated to him what he wanted said to destroy Wilson's credibility, and to whom.
Could a guy who was smart enough to be the vice president's chief of staff and national security adviser really have forgotten all that?
Could a jury really have reasonable doubt as to whether he did?
This was not a hard case. It was not a close case. In many respects, it was not a particularly sympathetic case. "Top White House aide hides behind first amendment in campaign to destroy critic" is not exactly a storyline that invites a jury to resist an easy conviction. Libby didn't testify because he basically had nothing to say in his defense.
So why did it take the jury so long to reach a verdict?
The answer, from the jury itself, is that they weren't eager to convict someone they themselves saw as the "fall guy" in the operation. According to Denis Collins, who spoke for the jury, "We asked ourselves, what is HE doing here? Where is Rove, and all these other guys? ... He was the fall guy."
Technically, of course, that's not the case. Technically, Libby wasn't the fall guy, but the fool, the one who made the mistake of trying to cover up the White House attack on Plame and Wilson, of actually lying about it, rather than taking the fifth or claiming he couldn't remember, which would not have gotten him into trouble. Legalistically, the reason the other guys weren't there and Libby was is that they didn't get caught lying and he did.
But there was a reason Libby felt the need to cover up. It may not have been a crime to out Valerie Plame in order to destroy her husband, but it is hardly the sort of move that speaks well for the administration behind it. Libby lied because what his boss told him to do was wrong and he did it anyway. It may have been defensible in a court of law, but it must have seemed to him, with reason, to be politically indefensible.
So Libby tried to protect himself and his team, for which he will go to prison — his life ruined — and they will go to dinner and pledge to put the whole thing behind them. His bosses will claim sadness, not gratitude. The only statement out of the White House was that Mr. Bush "was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family."
The jury did its job, which was to determine only whether Libby lied. But doing its job required them to judge a guy they didn't think was ultimately responsible — as opposed to the ones who are.
In many respects, the Bush administration is lucky. The fall guy has fallen. The special prosecutor has said there will be no further indictments. The Democrats may crow for a day or two, but the story is over.
The real crime here is the way the Bush administration manipulates the press and the press lets itself be manipulated, but there's no law against that. And no one is going to get punished for it. Poor Scooter. He just didn't understand that there really was no reason to lie. Sad is right.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.