In the end, Scooter Libby’s conviction took its toll on just about everybody involved.
None of the parties came out looking good.
Certainly not the Bush White House, whose clumsy attempts at manipulating the press and public opinion back-fired. Certainly not Vice President Cheney, who was seen to be willing to sacrifice the good name of his closest and most loyal aide. Certainly not Karl Rove, who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity but stood by silently as Scooter took the fall. Certainly not Mary Matalin, whose brainstorm to play Tim Russert and Chris Matthews off each other only got Scooter in deeper. And least of all, President Bush, who is left to somehow fulfill his pledge to fire anyone on his staff found culpable of the leak in the first place.
But the press did not cover itself in glory, either. Washington reporters revealed themselves through their own testimony to be far too dependent on far too few sources and far too cozy with the few they had. Scooter Libby had scores of “background” conversations with reporters — remarkable for someone described in the trial as incredibly busy with affairs of the highest national security. I’m glad that he was willing to make himself accessible, but the public learned from the trial testimony how limited are the sources of many of the capital’s top reporters.
The public learned as well just how far reporters were willing to go to protect their sources. Judy Miller of The Times agreed to describe Scooter in any article she wrote as “a former Hill staffer. ” Technically correct, but grossly, unnecessarily misleading. Now the reader knows that descriptions of anonymous sources are sometimes designed specifically to throw them off the track. (In the end, after their famous, two-hour breakfast, Judy wrote nothing. Did she not realize what she had?)
Finally, the Libby trial underscored just how empty a reporter’s pledge of confidentiality is when it involves anything that might come before a grand jury investigating a criminal matter. It demonstrated to reporters, potential sources and the public that there is no reporter’s privilege in such matters. Reporters can refuse to disclose a source, even go to jail in defense of the pledge, but a determined prosecutor can force their testimony if he chooses to do so. Only a federal shield law — carefully drawn — can resolve this dilemma.
The biggest loser in all of this, of course, is Scooter Libby himself. He is unlikely to ever spend a night in jail, given his appeals and the prospect of a presidential pardon if they fail, but he is, and will remain, a convicted felon.