CommunityFDL Main Blog

A Review of the Plame Coverage


I've decided that I'm going to do a periodical review (maybe weekly, but I'm not promising) of the coverage of the Libby trial, to point readers to good coverage while calling out those who have been spun badly. I'll focus primarily on print/online, since I don't watch much teevee (though if someone sends me a link, I'll try to include it). Here are my guidelines.


An accurate story that provides new information, newly-packaged guidelines for readers. 


A normal recap that sticks to known facts and doesn't exhibit spin. The story offers some news that is unique to the story.


A recap that pretty much mirrors the same narrative that other outlets are telling, with little new information or insight.


A recap that buys into one of the bigger spins of the trial but otherwise presents factual information.


A story that gets facts wrong in the context of noticeable spin. 


[Update, 1/17: This was not noted on the original syndication, but this is an AP piece written by Matt Apuzzo] Staffers, Sky Valley Journal

I love this story. It collects all the cool details of the personalities involved in the trial in one story. As an example, here is the profile it gives on Judge Walton:

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton does not fit neatly into a political box.

The same man who built a reputation for handing down stiff sentences is also known for counseling teenagers who share his hardscrabble upbringing.

The son of a steel worker, Walton grew up in Donora, Pa. He has spoken openly about occasionally packing a gun or a straight razor and getting into fights as a youth.

He worked his way through American University‘s Washington College of Law and, by age 30, was chief of the career criminal unit in the U.S. attorney‘s office in the nation‘s capital. When he was 32, President Reagan appointed him as a judge on the D.C. Superior Court.

Walton decided not to move the case to the courthouse‘s larger, more majestic ceremonial courtroom.

Click through to read profiles on all the major players.

Carol Leonnig, WaPo

There is nothing eathshattering here, just a very solid, balanced preview of the trial (Leonnig is, IMO, the smartest big publication journalist to cover this story from start to finish, and offers excellent insights on the law).

I consider this a very refreshing statement of the tensions we'll see at trial:

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's case will put on display the secret strategizing of an administration that cherry-picked information to justify war in Iraq and reporters who traded freely in gossip and protected their own interests as they worked on one of the big Washington stories of 2003.

And Leonnig reports a detail that I've never seen anyone else connect–the role between Judy's efforts to resuscitate her WMD reporting and her involvement in the leak (or in her case, non-leak) case.

At the time, Miller was trying to defend her own reporting, which had asserted evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.


Cary O'Reilly and Holly Rosenkrantz, Bloomberg

Nothing too eathshattering here, either–mostly a reflection on the two-sided sword that Cheney testimony may be.

What Cheney recalls may undermine Libby's too-busy defense while exposing the vice president to probes by Congress of how the Bush administration promoted the war, legal experts said.

“Litigation begets litigation,'' said Stanley Brand, a former U.S. House counsel who specializes in representing public officials accused of wrongdoing. “Every time you haul someone to court, it makes it more likely someone else is going to haul him to court. It's the Martha Stewart problem. Once you're under oath, people can take pot shots at you about what you said.''

What I liked about it, though, is this depiction of silence on both sides of calling Cheney.

Ted Wells, a Paul Weiss Rifkind attorney representing Libby, told U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton during a hearing last month that he plans to call Cheney to the stand. He and co- counsel William Jeffress of Baker Botts did not return telephone calls this week seeking comment.

Cheney spokeswoman Lea Ann McBride declined to say whether a subpoena has been received. “We have cooperated fully with the investigation and will continue to do so,'' McBride said.

I don't know what to make of it, mind you, but I find it interesting. Probably Wells and Jeffress are simply too busy preparing to respond. Perhaps they plan to spring some kind of surprise with Dick's testimony. But it's worth remembering that when this defense team is silent, it often means they've gotten some kind of bad news. Let's just say, then, it's worth keeping an eye on.

Matt Apuzzo, AP

Apuzzo has been covering the story over recent months and appears to have a real sense of where the trial will go. Much of the story is the same narrative others are telling–historical testimony of VP and whatnot. But I gave the story a "good" for this, which reflects an insight into the trial that many seem to lack.  

Fitzgerald has made clear in court that he wants to keep the larger, political back story out of the trial and focus narrowly on whether Libby lied to his investigators and obstructed the case.

That leaves Libby in the unexpected position of wanting to talk about the whole story of the leak and who else was involved. Libby's lawyers say Plame Wilson's identity was not disclosed because of a grand conspiracy, but rather because of political infighting among the CIA, the White House, and the State Department over intelligence failures on Iraq.

Though I would like Apuzzo to clarify this claim–does he have a direct quote from a hearing, or is he extrapolating from past Fitzgerald statements?

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald spent three years investigating that allegation but filed no charges based on the leak itself. He says his work is done except for trying Libby, who resigned after being indicted in October 2005. [Update: The original quote here was the wrong one–I agreed with the previous one totally, but not the "Fitzgerald has said he's done" quote.]


Jonathan Turley, Salon  

I'll give Turley this. His column made me laugh. Heres the best graf:

For those without a pocket Dante, the seven deadly sins are pride (or hubris), sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, lust and greed. Actually the original, biblical description of some of these sins in Proverbs 6:16-19 seems to read like a standard Beltway résumé: "A proud look, a lying tongue … [a] heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, [a] false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren." 

After which point he beats up on everyone: Libby, Cheney, Judy, Novak, the Wilsons, Fitz. My complaint with the column comes down to what I believe to be two false premises. First, that Fitz took it easy on Cheney.

The only possible motivation, for both Cheney and Novak, was the desire to punish Wilson by ruining his wife — pure, biblical wrath. Will Cheney pay for his wrath? While Cheney is the perfect witness to show that this was not a small hit job for Libby, Fitzgerald notably left him off the list. Throughout his investigation, Fitzgerald seems to have avoided Cheney or even the mention of his name in a Voldemort-like aversion. Now he has left Cheney's name off the prosecution's witness list. It will be Libby's defense team, not Fitzgerald, who calls Cheney. The question will be whether Fitzgerald will do a real cross-examination and bore into Cheney or whether, as in his investigation, Fitzgerald will let the vice president give a purely pedestrian account of his involvement in the affair.

To this, I'd just say, wait. We don't know how Fitz will go after Cheney, but the very centrality of Cheney in this affair–and the possibility that Libby tried to cover up his involvement–is almost certainly one of the reasons this investigation continued as far as it did. And we don't know why Fitz did or didn't call Cheney–but I suspect it was not because Fitz decided to go soft on him. 

And second, that Fitzgerald dedicated most of his energy to journalists.

While Fitzgerald showed a surprising lack of aggressiveness toward the White House (and particularly Cheney), he was obsessed with forcing reporters to give him privileged information without limitation. Indeed, the single most active area of litigation in the whole Plame affair investigation has been Fitzgerald's strong-arming of reporters and news organizations. With a single case, Fitzgerald has proved the need for a federal shield law that protects journalists from being forced to reveal sources in federal prosecutions. 

While Turley is correct in that the most active area of litigation had to do with journalists, it was not the most active area of the investigation. It was just the most visible. (For example, there are 4 key witnesses that are journalists, and 8 key witnesses that are current or former government officials.) And given the things he says about Judy, you'd think he'd want to temper this argument. And of course, most shield laws would not protect the journalists from precisely the kind of grand jury approach Fitzgerald pursued.

Ah well. Go read it anyway; it's witty. Just expect to get a little cranky while reading it. 

Robert Mintz, ABC News

I actually like this column in spite of its gigantic leap of illogic in the following passage:

In fact, all five of the counts lodged against Libby essentially repeat the same simple charge: When asked about his role in the leak by FBI agents and by a grand jury, Libby lied. Without minimizing the seriousness of such crimes, we have to conclude that despite a long and exceedingly thorough investigation, there seems to have been insufficient evidence to charge Libby with any other offense.

Moreover, Fitzgerald made clear that there were legal obstacles to bringing charges under statutes that might make disclosing Plame's identity a crime. So in the end, Libby was charged with lying to federal investigators and to a federal grand jury in order to cover up conduct which itself was not a crime, or at the very least, would not have resulted in criminal charges against him.

Mintz jumps from "insufficient evidence" on charges involving intent to "conduct which itself was not a crime." Call me crazy, but it seems pretty clear that "insufficient evidence" does not mean a crime didn't occur. But I like the story anyway, because of its provocative suggestion:

What if Libby had admitted leaking Plame's identity as a CIA operative? Fitzgerald never claimed, either in the indictment or in his public statements, that Libby had known of her covert status, a condition that would be a prerequisite to bringing charges under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

Similarly, even though the indictment did describe Libby as having provided classified information concerning the identity of a CIA officer to people not eligible to receive it, Fitzgerald said he was reluctant to bring such a charge, since it was not clear that Libby appreciated the classified nature of the information or that he acted recklessly in sharing it with others. But that path, too, was politically foreclosed. To acknowledge that he intentionally "outed" Wilson as a CIA operative would have set off a firestorm of criticism, even if his conduct was ultimately judged not to have been criminal.

Not that I agree with Mintz. I suspect we'll find details that explain why such a move was politically and (possibly) legally untenable. Why, if Libby had admitted to leaking Plame's identity, then he would have been at much greater risk. Or his buddy Cheney, which may well be the point (and one Mintz sort of dismisses with the idea that Fitzgerald should go easy on old Shooter).

But Mintz raises the question–what would have happened if they had 'fessed up? Would the American people have been able to pressure Cheney out of office in 2004? Would Congress have been able to impeach Libby? Would enough conservatives have soured on Cheney in 2003 so as to short circuit the hell that is the Bush Administration? Or, frankly, would Libby's admission have remained secret for 3 years, as Armitage's did?

I really am skeptical about the answer. But the fact remains–they were concerned enough about the charges to allow the investigation to go forward. Why?


Neil Lewis, NYT

Much of this isn't bad, and Lewis provides a fair assessment of each side's argument before the trial. But one of the larger issues he raises is the problem with Independent Prosecutors.

and the always vexing question about the wisdom of using an independent prosecutor to investigate crimes in an administration.

He then replicates the spin–and incorrect statement–that Fitzgerald decided to continue an investigation in October 2003 after learning of Armitage's role.

That disclosure raised questions among Mr. Libby’s defenders and others about why Mr. Fitzgerald chose to prolong the investigation when he knew as early as October 2003 that Mr. Armitage was the leaker, and that he had not violated any laws because of the circumstances in which he disclosed Ms. Wilson’s name.

To those critics, Mr. Fitzgerald’s investigation demonstrated the same problems as those conducted by independent counsels in previous cases who, unchecked by normal constraints, often proceeded until they could charge someone with a “process” crime like perjury.

Someone ought to explain a few things to Lewis, because otherwise the rest of this article would merit at least a "fair" grade. First, Fitzgerald is not an Independent Prosecutor. And second, Fitzgerald was not the one, in October 2003, who decided to continue the investigation. It was the FBI, working under the close supervision of John Ashcroft. If he has a problem with the decision to continue the investigation, he needs to take it up with Ashcroft, not Fitzgerald. And finally, Lewis makes the common mistake (one the Libby team would love to propagate) that this investigation was limited to the Novak leak, which it wasn't.


Scott Shane, NYT

Say. wasn't there a time, not so long ago, that the NYT believed that fellatio was an impeachable offense? Because now, you see, they seem to think it's worthy of publication. I can't think of any other description of Shane's latest than a big drooly blow job to Scooter Libby. 

I don't so much mind the profile.  But if you're going to do a profile, base it on neutral observers. Dennis Ross? Raising money for Libby's Defense Fund. Fukuyama? Matalin? Ditto. 

But the real reason this profile gets my Blow Job of the Week award is the way it so neatly parallels the talking points Libby's defense team would love to have out there–and Shane doesn't seem to be troubled that he's getting these talking points from professional spinmeisters. Just before a trial in which Libby's grand jury testimony will show him leaking information without knowing whether it was declassified or not, all his paid buddies call him "reserved." “Like Cheney, Scooter’s a tomb.” So says a profile quoting not one, but two former paid spokepeople for these tombs. Libby's heroic efforts to cover for the potentially and clearly criminal behavior of Cheney and Marc Rich, respectively? That's him advocating for others, like some nice boy scout. No matter that this "boy scout" is helping a criminal cross the road, not some old lady. Want to help someone make a claim that he was so busy with very important security issues that he plum forgot he outed a spy? Get your once and future paid shill to insist that, "What animates him is security." And in case that's doesn't do the trick, describe him as too concerned with safety. Not working from a script here, at all, Scott Shane isn't. He's just showing real skepticism about the claims that all these people employed to make Scooter look good are saying.

The big old blow job ends with a slimy swallow, as Shane paints Libby as the victim, "It seemed a dreadful shame that circumstances can sometimes ruin lives."

Yeah Shane. A bigger shame, though, that the willful behavior of our nation's top officials might have deliberately ruined public servants' lives. 

Tim Reid, Times (UK)

I can't tell whether this is supposed to be an editorial, but it sure reads like one. Several of his comments ignore abundant evidence to counter his claims.

It became clear last year that the accusation that triggered the special prosecutor's investigation – that the White House knew that Ms Plame was an undercover operative and leaked her identity deliberately to discredit her husband, a war critic – was unfounded.

Reid apparently doesn't understand the idea of an obstruction charge–nor does he seem to know about the several meetings where Bush officials strategized about a response, including (between Libby and Rove) one that definitely mentioned Plame. Also, given that Hubris quotes Rove as saying the White House would fuck over the Wilsons, this claim is totally wrong.

Claims of a White House operation to destroy the Wilsons were all but demolished after it emerged recently that Mr Novak’s source was Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s former deputy at the State Department.

Reid makes the common error of believing that Armitage's behavior somehow erases the behavior of others. 

And with a nice little word game, he tries to pretend that Novak's reference to Plame as an operative didn't out her, but that Joe Wilson did.

A week later Robert Novak, a conservative columnist, wrote that Mr Wilson had been sent to Niger by Ms Plame, the first time that her name had been made public. The report caused a political storm after Mr Wilson claimed that his wife was a covert agent and that her name had been leaked as retribution for his criticism of the war.

Uh huh. Joe Wilson, in refusing to confirm his wife's status, outed her.  Novak did nothing more than name her, right?

Finally, this story reads with the dripping lustiness of a young frat boy. Reid refers to Plame's beauty twice in the article, first calling her a "a blonde bombshell spy" and the referring to her as "Valerie Plame, a former covert CIA agent with stunning good looks." Okay, okay, I get the idea, and I agree, Valerie Wilson is stunning. But you think maybe you could wipe the saliva off your chin long enough to also mention her role in protecting this country from nuclear proliferation?

Previous post

The Gathering Storm

Next post

Dr. Phil & Gender-Identity RIGHT NOW