The conviction of I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on criminal charges of obstruction of justice and perjury brings only a partial conclusion to the sordid political tragedy that is the Bush presidency. Yet the judgment on this matter goes to the heart of the administration. The means and the ends of Bush's White House have received a verdict from the bar of justice.
Foreign policy was and is the principal way of consolidating unchecked executive power. In the run-up to the Iraq war, professional standards, even within the military and intelligence agencies, were subordinated to political goals. Only information that fit the preconceived case was permitted. Those who advanced facts or raised skeptical questions about sketchy information were seen as deliberate enemies causing damage from within. From the beginning, the White House indulged in unrestrained attacks on such professionals. Revealing the facts, especially about the politically-driven method of skewing policy, was treated as a crime against the state.
For questioning the undermanned battle plan for the invasion of Iraq, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was publicly humiliated by neoconservative Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and then cashiered. For disclosing negligence on terrorism before the Setempber 11 attacks, counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke was accused by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice of acting purely out of motives of personal greed to promote his recently published memoir. For exposing the absence of rational policymaking in economics as well as foreign policy, Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill was threatened with an investigation for allegedly abusing classified material. Once he was intimidated into silence, the probe was dropped.
In the aftermath of former ambassador Joseph Wilson's revelation that the most explosive reason given for war against Iraq - that Saddam Hussein was seeking yellowcake uranium in Niger to fuel nuclear weapons - had no apparent basis in fact, the Bush White House revved into high gear against the critic. Wilson, however, was even more dangerous than the others because he was a witness to the false rationale for the war.
As Libby's defense counsel insisted, Scooter was merely one of many in the White House assailing Wilson's integrity. Others, including Bush's political strategist Karl Rove, were involved. To a degree, the smear campaign was for a time successful, fueled by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee and elements of the Washington press corps. But the trial exhibits - documents entered by the special prosecutor - knocked down every single one of their falsehoods.
Libby's defenders argued that there was no underlying crime. He was not charged with revealing the identity of Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife, as a covert CIA agent, which was a charge raised by the White House gang in an effort to prove she sent Wilson on his Niger mission - another of the lies spread about him.
But Libby committed his crimes to cover-up the role of his boss and to protect his own position in the attack on Wilson. At base, then, the reasons for war were the scandal.
Libby was no mere factotum. He was a central member of the neoconservative cast of characters, who began as a protégé of Wolfowitz and was elevated to the role of Cheney's indispensable man.
Libby's conviction not only indelibly stains neoconservatism. It is a damning condemnation of the Bush White House belief that the ends justify the means and its aggrandizement of absolute power. Ultimately, this is a verdict that can never be erased from the history of the Bush presidency.