As a former senior staff member in the office of the vice president, I’ve gotten many questions in recent days from reporters about my direct boss Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, who pleaded innocent in the CIA leak case last Thursday: “What is he really like on a personal level? What drives him? Why would he act as alleged in the indictment against him?
I don’t claim to be personally close Scooter Libby; he hired me for the job of assistant to the vice president for domestic policy in the first Bush term. I have not spoken to Scooter since we ran into each other at a social function last December. I have no access to his legal defense team, nor their strategy going forward. But I have my own observations of the man, and some commonsense arguments that should to be considered as they relate to the indictment.
The caricature of Scooter Libby portrayed in Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s indictment is utterly at odds with his professional and personal history. He is honorable, discreet, selfless — a man of unquestionable integrity. Most of his professional career has been spent in public service, as a behind-the-scenes, yet invaluable staffer at the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the Congress.
For the past five years, Libby served as the chief of staff to the vice president, assistant to the vice president for national-security affairs, and assistant to the president — at great personal sacrifice; he left a lucrative private law practice, and had to compromise family time with his two grade-school children — to focus his energies on his all consuming job in the White House.
Scooter worked 12-16 hours a day for six (sometimes seven) days a week on uncountable foreign and domestic-policy issues at the highest level. Indeed, his three titles amounted to three jobs. His typical workday started around 6:00 A.M. providing an overview of the day for the vice president, and attending the daily intelligence briefing before the 7:30 A.M. White House senior staff meeting.
In between attending all of the vice president’s meetings on domestic policy, congressional affairs, speechwriting, and political strategy, Scooter Libby was a principal in his own right, participating in high-level policy meetings convened by the National Security Council, Homeland Security Council, and National Economic Council. He rounded out his typical day with his own set of meetings and phone calls with ambassadors, foreign officials, business leaders, and members of Congress.
In the months after the 9/11 attacks, Libby spent much of the time with the vice president in “undisclosed locations” — and away from his family for significant periods of time. During the summer of 2003, the vice president, Libby, and other members of the Bush national-security team were focused on the initial stages of securing Iraq, and on Israeli-Palestinian relations. On the domestic front, the White House senior staff was grappling with the decline in the U.S. dollar, and dramatic reform of Medicare.
This indictment gives no perspective to how a conversation Libby may have had about Valerie Plame could be had in passing or tangentially. It makes it look like he spent his days obsessing on former Ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife Plame, which of course, could not the case given the other demands on his time. That he would recall conversations differently than others is completely inevitable in the rapid-fire White House environment of never-ending national security crises, policy decisions, meetings and phone calls, especially when those conversations were fleeting.
The indictment is one sided; we have not heard Scooter Libby’s side of the story, but it defies logic that he would completely comply with every request, waive all his privileges, turn over all his documents and notes, and waive reporters to testify if he was trying to cover up or lying.
At the base of this affair is Joe Wilson, a man shown by the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to have said things publicly about his trip to Niger that were false. Furthermore, the indictment essentially exonerates the White House staff from the original charge. The indictment charges no one in the White House, including Libby, with conspiracy; no one violated the law forbidding disclosure of a covert agents name nor the law forbidding disclosure of classified information. As the Wall Street Journal editorial page recently put it, “Libby is charged with lying about a crime that wasn’t committed.”
I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of the indictment: If Scooter Libby is found by a jury of his peers to have done what Fitzgerald alleges, then he should face the consequences. But along with everyone who worked for Libby in the office of the vice president, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt because I believe him to be an honest and decent man who has always put his country first. His goal was a noble one — to protect the American people from terrorism. We should all presume Libby to innocent until proven guilty, not presumed innocent until charged.
Cesar Conda was assistant to the vice president for domestic policy from January 2001 to September 2003.