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Claiming perch above law portends long, painful fall

“I don’t know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I’d like to know it, and we’ll take the appropriate action.”

---George Dubya Bush

John Dean had a pretty good fix on the situation, but he underestimated the arrogance of his boss.

President Richard M. Nixon believed the scandal seeded by the Watergate burglary could be contained. Mr. Dean, the president’s lawyer, knew it was a tumor that could grow, metastasize and spread, eventually engulfing the presidency.

“There is a cancer on the presidency,” Mr. Dean famously said, advising Mr. Nixon to come clean with the public and begin distancing himself from the “plumbers” who carried out the break-in and other “dirty tricks” against the president’s political and ideological enemies.

Mr. Nixon, of course, refused. He believed he was above the law, and that he could escape the consequences of his personal and professional corruption by tossing underlings like Mr. Dean to the wolves baying at the Oval Office door. Thankfully, for the nation and the world, he was wrong. The rest, primarily under the bylines of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, is history.

History has a trifling way of repeating itself, and anyone watching the wobbly arc of what has come to be known as “Plamegate” can be forgiven for feeling a strong sense of “Deanja-vu.” Since its genesis in July 2003, this scandal has played like a sequel to “All the President’s Men.”

Mr. Woodward has a bit part this time around, more privileged apologist than crusading journalist. Mr. Bernstein has had a cameo or two. Even Mr. Dean is back, hawking a book called “Worse than Watergate.”

Until Thursday, the only element missing was a rogue president who follows the Nixonian logic that states, “If the president does it, it can’t be illegal.”

Surely, President Bush and his administration have used this excuse before. Secretly authorizing the torture of detainees and wiretapping the phone conversations of unsuspecting Americans are just a pair in a laundry list of examples of a White House that plays by its own rules.

While these transgressions outraged many Americans, they have been sanctioned by a criminally negligent Republican Congress and excused by the echo chamber of conservative news outlets. A lack of congressional oversight and a campaign of relentless, concentrated spin has helped the president survive these scandals, but no amount of truth-twisting can excise the tumor now swelling inside the Bush presidency.

Mr. Nixon’s Achilles heel was a man named Liddy.

Mr. Bush’s is named Libby.

I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, has told investigators President Bush authorized the leak of classified intelligence to discredit Joseph Wilson, an administration critic who dared to challenge the president’s flimsy case for war in Iraq.

His wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was a CIA agent specializing in, of all things, curtailing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Now she’s a footnote of history, the victim of a political hit orchestrated by a White House that always puts partisan politics above the people’s business.

In a court filing, “Plamegate” Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald reports that Mr. Libby fingered Mr. Cheney as the “Deep Throat” who ordered him to hit Mr. Wilson where it would hurt most. When Mr. Libby said he was uncomfortable about leaking classified intelligence to the press, Mr. Cheney told him the president authorized the leaks.

So Scooter picked his plumbing tools and went to work.

The administration felt it had to discredit Mr. Wilson, who had put the lie to the president’s claim that Iraq had tried to purchase “yellowcake” uranium to make nuclear weapons. Mr. Libby began meeting with reporters and sharing classified intelligence, including portions of a National Intelligence Estimate supporting the president’s claim.

Mr. Cheney also ordered the outing of Ms. Plame, although it’s not clear from Mr. Libby’s testimony what the president knew and when he knew it.

When the scandal broke, Mr. Bush said he would fire anyone caught leaking, a pledge he later amended to read “anyone who broke the law.”

When Mr. Libby was charged with five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI, he was allowed to resign. Guess you have to be convicted, too.

“I’d like to know if somebody in my White House did leak sensitive information,” Mr. Bush said, revealing himself as either a liar or a fool, perhaps both. Either he authorized the leaks, or Mr. Cheney did so without his permission. Either way, it’s time for a reckoning.

The excuses have already begun. While the White House is dodging questions about Mr. Libby’s testimony, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales insists the president has the “inherent authority to decide who should have classified information.” This is the same great legal mind who advocated torture and secret wiretapping. In other words, if the president does it, it’s not illegal.

It all has an eerily familiar ring, but something is very different this time around. We’re no longer talking about a cancer on the presidency, but a presidency that’s a cancer on the nation.

CHRIS KELLY, Times-Tribune columnist, is always springing leaks. E-mail:


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