The Libby Trial: Who's On First?

(AP Photo/Dana Verkouteren)
Covering Federal trials is never very easy for television. With no cameras or tape recorders in the courtroom, all of the drama must be conveyed to viewers via artist renditions and quotes from lawyers and witnesses typed onto the screen. But the case of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby takes the difficulty one step further. Why, you ask? Because unlike many trials and news events, this trial is not about what the trial is about. Confused yet?

So are we. The trial is simply about this question: Did Scooter Libby lie to the FBI and a grand jury that were investigating the illegal disclosure of an undercover CIA operative's name to a newspaper columnist. He is on trial for perjury and obstruction of justice. So, what's the big deal? Well, Libby, as many of you now know, was at the time the Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. And, the whole investigation began because "leaking" or divulging the name of an undercover CIA operative is a federal offense. So why isn't Libby on trial for leaking? He didn't leak the name to the columnist who first published it. Who did? Former under-secretary of state Richard Armitage. Why isn't he on trial? He apologized. What? Exactly. Ok, so it sounds a little Abbott and Costello.

Why do we care? Because all of Washington was eyeing this trial to see if the leak of the name was ordered by the top levels of the White House. See, the reason the CIA operative's name got leaked was because her husband went to Niger to investigate the claims that Saddam Hussein had bought nuclear materials from there. After President Bush said in his State of the Union that Iraq had done so, the husband, himself a former Ambassador, Joe Wilson, wrote an article in the New York Times dismissing the President's claim. And then the White House, tried to undermine Wilson by suggesting that his wife, a CIA operative, and no one with higher authority, sent him on the mission.

So did Cheney tell Libby to leak the name, which would violate the law? Well, kind of but not really. And both Cheney and Libby were spared having to testify in this trial, and that's where the real answers could have come. But then again, Libby didn't leak the name. He just allegedly couldn't remember various conversations he had with journalists about the name and then lied about it. So all of this boils down to the old Washington adage that the cover-up is worse than the crime? In this case yes, because no one is on trial for the crime that started it all.

So the difficulty in reporting this story has been just that...the real story has very little to do with the trial. Many journalists were hoping that the trial would provide a window into the White House effort to discredit its critics. Cheney's office is under a "cloud" as the prosecutor said and many of the internal issues deliberations of the White House have come out from the trial. But to get to that news takes going through the entire Who's on First of what the case is about. It takes 3 sentences to say what the case is about before being able to say one word of what happened any given day in the trial.

What did come out of this trial? There was an uncomfortable amount of disclosure as how Washington works and how the press does its job. How the White House selectively chooses reporters to give certain information to, and how those reporters work sources, is interesting but rather depressing information. At the same time, a journalist went to jail for over 80 days to protect a source and the Bush Administration has spent millions of dollars and years prosecuting how journalists get information, yet they themselves, at the highest level, reveal information all the time.

And when the jury comes back with a verdict, it will have no greater meaning about the White House effort to discredit its critics, just that Libby may have made a simple mistake and forgot what he told who when.

The flow-chart is on its way.

  • Robert Hendin On Twitter»

    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.

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