“Would you be willing to plant corroborating evidence on a suspect you know to be guilty?” –Dudley, LA Confidential
Ari Fleischer testified on Monday that at his first meeting with Scooter Libby, at a restaurant in July 2003, the first thing they talked about was football. This struck me as either strange or a lie—if two senior administration officials needed to sniff each other’s non-intellectual credentials to establish trust, then why not baseball, something at least in season? But it all made sense after I heard they were talking about the Miami Dolphins. This was code, Miami being a homing beacon for American perversions of political power. (Since it’s topical to my earlier arguments on Florida’s phallomorphism: Dolphins? Are these surrogates in some pre-teen girl’s fantasy? Why not Miami Unicorns? Miami Magic Wands?)
Fleischer then described how Libby communicated Valerie Plame’s CIA identity: “He said it was hush-hush, on the Q.T. and that most people didn’t know it.”
Which is to say, in his desire to get across it was an enticing secret, Libby fell back on quoting the gossip reporter from the opening lines of L.A. Confidential:
Hudgens: “Remember, dear readers, you heard it here first, off the record, on the Q.T., and very Hush-Hush.”
What’s fascinating is not that this is how the adults who run the country talk, but that it confirms our understanding of the administration’s view of the press, as swayable, salacious gossipmongers, only interested in tidbits that were exclusive, top-secret, and—specifically for the identity of a covert CIA officer—Confidential.
Libby’s defense has mirrored in many ways his strategy with the press when Wilson-Plame broke: one that relies not on facts but on message. Not whether Wilson was right, but who sent him; and not whether Libby told the truth to the grand jury, but whether it’s fair even to ask him to remember. In days, the trial has moved beyond one man’s defense, even beyond any liberal’s wished for indictment of the Bush administration’s war rationale (if so, Fitzgerald said, they would need cots). It has ballooned into a clash of big themes.
NPR’s On the Media predicted this while the trial was still in voir dire: “It’s not exactly a whodunit… [but] a case that, if the jury selection is any indication, is more about memory and media than the identity of an undercover agent.”
Enter Judith Miller, who as a witness couldn’t seem to remember a thing that happened between her and Libby, or between her and any of the other of the senior administration officials whose leaks she transcribed all the way into Baghdad, who as a reporter—a professional—whose memory was “largely note driven” kept her notes in a bag under her desk. (Only the jury bothered to ask why.) In an investigation that had at first (but no longer) swept up fears of attacks on press freedom, here was as close an example you could get to why the press might not deserve it.
The Watergate hearings grew from a burglary into a battle between executive power and the rule of law. But if Libby’s defense succeeds it could make Watergate’s stakes look like a People’s Court dispute. Nixon was brought down by the law, so now Libby is attacking the law at its foundations, taking on the even weightier ideas, the philosophical ideas even, of memory and the irrecoverability of truth. Their argument renders perjury a non-issue, a crime inconsistent with the idea of a defendant who is too important to remember his own actions. Which evaporates the idea of law. And when law is gone, what’s left is power. If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.
Without trying to sound wonky, I want to say that Libby, as an extension of the administration, does this by adopting the tools of critique that until recently the disenfranchised have used to dissect the monolithic institutions—ambiguity, fracture, dispersal—and turning them around as weapons of defense of that same monolith, in an intimidating barrage of “Who, me?”s. His non-defense defense essentially blows out the concept of reasonable doubt into the denial of objective truth itself—and from a conservative side. Are we watching one man who was betrayed by the administration, or is he the administration? Is Libby defending himself against Cheney, or is he defending Cheney? Is he doing one while appearing to do the other? Which?
It’s almost enough to think that the VP’s Chief of Staff was sent out to fight as a distraction, a wild goose chase. At the same time that the trial is starting to attract more attention, Alberto Gonzalez unceremoniously dropped Bush’s long-held domestic eavesdropping policy, as if it weren’t even worth the fight they said they were going to make over it. It took years for America to build up a sizeable opposition to spying at home, and then poof it disappears. You get the feeling that the investigators are chasing after chimeras—after Rollo Tomasis, perhaps. But Rollo Tomasi brought police chief Dudley down in the end, once Exley learned to let go of his intellectual principles, like a man.
Meanwhile Cheney takes those tools of dispersal and ambiguity, and recedes into an infinite hall of mirrors, and we’re stuck trying to pin him down—to bring up another movie—like Bruce Lee chasing after Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon.
Exley: Rollo’s the reason I became a cop. I wanted to catch the guys who thought they could get away with it. It was supposed to be about truth and justice and Rollo.
Bruce Lee predicts the Zeitgeist: