A Tale of Two Cities

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton has just ruled that Scooter Libby must report to prison within the next four to six weeks after denying Libby’s request to remain free on bail pending appeal of his sentence. (By way of full disclosure, I was hired by Libby to join Vice President Cheney’s staff in late December 2000 as the deputy domestic policy adviser to the VP.) The airwaves have been abuzz with what political implications this will have for the Bush White House and whether justice has been served by this ruling.

I can’t help but believe there are two different standards for two differing high-profile political defendants in Washington, D.C. How else to explain the disparity in fate between former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Libby? Berger, you will recall, was researching highly classified documents at the National Archives for testimony before the 9/11 Commission relating to threats during the Millennium. Berger, it was proved at trial, removed these highly sensitive documents, returned some and destroyed others; the rationale behind this action has never fully been explained.
After denying any wrongdoing, Berger was found guilty of removing classified documents. His sentence? Probation, 100 hours of community service and a $50,000 fine.

Turning to Mr. Libby, he was brought before a grand jury, which returned an indictment against him for several serious crimes. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that both the Department of Justice and the special counsel (Patrick Fitzgerald) knew that Valerie Plame’s identity was not covert as defined by statute and that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, not any official within the White House, had revealed the identity of Plame to columnist Robert Novak.

The facts be damned, Fitzgerald continued with a prosecution looking for something, anything that would apparently reveal some form of cover-up or retribution against Plame for statements made by her husband, widely discredited former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. After the prosecutor found a few inconsistent statements, he charged Libby with perjury and obstruction of justice — no matter that several other witnesses during the trial had provided conflicting testimony. (For one, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer claimed that he had never told Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus about Plame under oath, while Pincus claimed just the opposite.)

Following a “He said, he said,” trial, the jury returned guilty verdicts; now Libby is on the verge of going to prison. The judge in the current case ignored the sentencing recommendations of the federal probation office of giving Libby a sentence ranging from 15 to 21 months with the option of probation. No, the judge decided to return a 30-month sentence, a $250,000 fine and several hundred hours of community service.

So: A senior former adviser to President Clinton can remove classified documents from the National Archives, lie about it open court and receive probation and a small fine, while a former adviser to President Bush can be brought up on charges that the prosecutor knows that official didn’t violate, ultimately get charged and convicted of a process rather than crime of commission and then receive the harshest sentence available to the judge.

Washington, D.C. must be a tale of two cities — a city where two similar defendants from differing political parties are sentenced in vastly different manners. What a travesty of justice.