The Bush Emergency


The Starbucks workers at Union Station in New Haven, Connecticut, sniggered when Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby walked in last week. In an appearance seemingly hand crafted for gossip snark-sheets like Wonkette and Gawker, he was dressed in a ‘top-coat, and p ulling two small bags stacked on a roller cart ,’ according to the Washington Post journo whose informant spotted him. US media speculated that he was headed out of the famous Ivy League/dorm-suburb station to midtown Manhattan to meet with his lawyer.

Libby isn’t doing much other than meeting with his lawyers these days. Once Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff, on 6 March he was convicted on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to investigators working for Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Libby is now infamous as the most senior Administration official convicted on felony charges since the Iran-Contra Affair which almost destroyed Ronald Reagan’s Presidency between 1986 and 1988.

Libby’s conviction relates to the leaking of Valerie Plame’s undercover identity as a CIA agent to Bob Novak, the conservative rent-a-gob. Along with Richard Armitage (Colin Powell’s second-in-command at the State Department at the time), Libby leaked Plame’s identity to Novak in an attempt to undermine Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson. A former US diplomat, Wilson had been sent by the CIA to the African State of Niger in 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq had been buying yellowcake for the manufacture of nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction. Wilson’s sin, and the reason he had to be smeared, was that he publicly stated that the rumours about Niger’s yellowcake dealings with Iraq were false at a time when the Bush Administration was using those rumours as a pretext for its invasion of Iraq.

Libby changed his story during his trial he first claimed NBC journalist Tim Russert  had disclosed Plame’s identity to him. Later, he admitted it was Cheney who told him. And in his closing remarks to the trial, the name that Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald mentioned as being ‘under a cloud’ was Dick Cheney’s. But if you think this leaves Dick in a tight spot, reconsider.

If Scooter isn’t the only one who got the order (maybe from the Vice Prez) to spill the beans about Plame, he ain’t talking. And Fitzgerald says that Libby’s refusal to really talk stopped more people from being charged.

Think this reticence will earn Libby extra jail time? Not necessarily. Even as Scooter’s lawyers prepare their appeal, the White House won’t say whether it will ultimately pardon him. The Presidential Pardon  is the traditional way that outgoing US Presidents have stopped their friends from getting too candid with judges or prosecutors. Dubya’s dad, George HW Bush, pardoned six people over Iran-Contra including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Bill Clinton pardoned 162 people in his last weeks.

Given these machinations, Valerie Plame isn’t likely to find out the full details of who ordered her outing as a spy any time soon if ever. Instead, she’s plumped for the tried-and-true American tactic of suing the bastards.

Plame and Wilson have launched a civil action against Cheney, Libby, Armitage and Bush’s spinmeister, Karl Rove. The couple is alleging that the Administration violated their privacy and endangered them by leaking Plame’s identity, and that their employment prospects were damaged after the leak.

The civil suit hasn’t been given the go-ahead by the courts yet though Libby’s conviction means it probably will. Cheney’s lawyers say that he’s immune because he’s the Vice President. But, if the trial goes ahead, the Administration must be worried about who Plame and Wilson’s lawyers will want to talk to during the ‘discovery’ phase. And they’ll be especially worried that they won’t be as brave as Scooter’s been so far, with the threat of 30 years in a Federal jail hanging over them.

But while the Scooter-Plame-yellowcake game is fascinating, what you probably don’t know is that the guy who replaced Libby as Cheney’s Chief of Staff, David Addington,  is the real brains of the Bush Administration and that much of the White House’s style, and the high-handed way it deals with the judiciary and bureaucracy, can be traced to his political philosophy. As Jane Mayer wrote in the New Yorker last year, insiders say that Addington ‘speaks for the Vice President.’

Which brings us to Washington’s other major scandal of the moment the politically motivated sacking by US Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez, of eight Federal Attorneys.

Along with John Yoo, the Berkeley Professor responsible for much of the US’s anti-terrorism legislation, the so-called Patriot Act, Addington came up with much of the theoretical justification for the Bush Administration’s revised legal powers after 9/11. Addington’s ‘New Paradigm’ argues that the President has the power to do whatever is necessary in the interests of national security during a time of emergency. And in the current situation, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror constitute that ’emergency.’

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

There’s even a connection between Addington and David Hicks, because it’s Addington’s New Paradigm that is responsible for the White House’s emphasis on preventing terrorist attacks through interrogation even if torture is involved and the emergency powers that Addington claimed for Bush led directly to the setting up of the Special Military Tribunals at Guantánamo Bay.

The New Paradigm was designed to deal with foreigners the famous ‘enemy combatants’ we see snippets of, as they shuffle about in orange overalls and the anti-terrorist measures that have been implemented as a result have been portrayed by the Administration as unprecedented, because they are designed for an unprecedented enemy.

But what’s been at issue in Washington over the past week is the way that the White House has been treating dissenters within its own bureaucracy (Plame and Wilson) and the US judiciary (the eight Federal Attorneys). The White House, as the Executive branch of government, has certain legitimate powers over these other branches of power for instance, the Administration can hire, fire and appoint.

But the Executive is meant to act scrupulously.

What’s worrying its critics are t
he telltale signs that the Bush Administration is trying to gain broader and more arbitrary powers by arguing (along with Addington) that its Executive power is the ‘Supreme Power’ in the United States, and that it therefore trumps any ‘lesser’ powers.

Thus, in Gonzalez’s decision to give eight Federal Attorneys a pink slip for allegedly political reasons, the White House argues that the President’s Executive power gives him powers at lower levels. In other words, because Bush (through his Attorney General) has the authority to hire Attorneys, he also has the lesser power to fire them whenever he wants to and for any reason, even a purely political one. Essentially, this means that Gonzalez can do whatever he likes because he can claim broad emergency powers as a result of the War on Terror.

But as Dahlia Lithwick argues, in an article in last week’s Slate, this kind of logic inevitably means that you can deduce almost anything from the State’s ‘higher’ powers. Lithwick quotes John Yoo:

Look, death is worse than torture, but everyone except pacifists thinks there are circumstances in which war is justified. War means killing people. If we are entitled to kill people, we must be entitled to injure them I don’t see how it can be reasonable to have an absolute prohibition on torture when you don’t have an absolute prohibition on killing.

But she counters by asking:

by what measure, other than Yoo’s assertion, is the power to water-board [LINK:] someone ‘lesser’ than the power to kill? And if it is, why does Yoo draw the line at water-boarding rather than eye-gouging which is, by his logic, still better than death? You can similarly claim, [the University of Virginia’s Jody]Kraus notes, that since the State has the greater power to execute criminals, it also has the ‘lesser’ power to ‘stick [them]in oil, just for a minute or so.’

So, let’s get this straight. The ’emergency’ powers that gives the Bush Administration the right to torture also gives it the right to hire and fire anyone at will, and the right to prosecute internal dissenters on the grounds that the Executive represents the nation in its moment of danger. This is the real basis of Cheney and Addington’s thinking.

But this is highly debatable (legally). And, ultimately, it may ensnare both of them in the Scooter Libby mess.

Addington was named in Libby’s trial as the guy whom disgraced New York Times journalist Judith Miller spoke to about Valerie Plame, after Scooter. Although Addington is not named in the Plame/Wilson civil suit, he’ll be a key witness for lawyers in that trial as they try to discover what went on in Cheney’s office in 2003 when Plame’s name was leaked.

If he gets called, will Addington (who has been described as ‘Cheney’s Cheney’) have as much courage as the guy who the $7.50-an-hour grunts at Starbucks now recognise?

My bet is that the White House is getting those pardon papers ready for more than just Scooter Libby.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.