How to be a Washington Expert

It is a moss-encrusted truism that in order to be an expert in Washington, one only has to know an infinitesimal amount more than the average TV-watching ignoramus. The imperial capital boasts a greater density of pseudo-experts, jumped-up grad students, egomaniacal publicity hounds, and partisan false flag operatives than any patch of territory since the Rome of Elagabolus. The fake expert is now a Washington City career track that supports many a think tank and speaker’s bureau. One such fake expert is Washington lawyer Victoria Toensing, a partisan operative who clawed her way up the greasy pole to become a deputy assistant political appointee at the Justice Department in the remote Pleistocene abysm of the Reagan Administration.

In the 1990s, as a political gunslinger no longer employed by the government, Ms. Toensing fell naturally into the well-worn groove of becoming a pseudo-expert: an ostensibly well-informed specialist observer who in reality recites carefully rehearsed talking points, in this case of the Republican National Committee.

Knowing this background, it was with eager anticipation that we read Ms. Toensing’s latest pronouncement on the famous Libby/Plame case in the journal of the political class, the Washington Post. [1] The first thing we noticed was that the Post, predictably, failed to disclose that Ms. Toensing had filed an amicus curae brief on behalf of journalist Matthew Cooper and “journalist” Judith Miller in March 2005 in re the Libby Plame case. Some disinterested observer she is, but par for the course. We shall return to this filing later.

The gravamen of Ms. Toensing’s bill of indictment, as she calls it, is that the defendant, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, [2] is a patsy. But who is guilty? Rather than focusing “like a laser beam” on a plausible suspect, she unlooses a blunderbuss that hits every conceivable party involved – except, by a miraculous coincidence, the Office of the Vice President, where Libby worked, and which had the strongest motive to attack Joseph C. Wilson, the husband of Valerie Plame.

Her indictees include: a. prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald himself, for picking on Libby and not prosecuting former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (conveniently out of government and held harmless by Fitzgerald); b. the Central Intelligence Agency; c. the news media (perennial bugaboo of the Right that it is); d. Wilson (the victim of the crime made out to be the actual perpetrator); e. Ari Fleischer (also conveniently out of government, and whose testimony appeared to incriminate Libby); and finally, f. the Justice Department, for having punted the leak case to a special prosecutor for no compelling reason.

Let us deconstruct this farrago of nonsense in detail. Ms. Toensing prefaces her six scattershot bills of indictment by saying that “responsible prosecutors don’t bring perjury cases on mere ‘he said, she said’ evidence,” because the trial becomes “a mishmash of faulty memories in which witnesses can seem as guilty as the defendant.”

Really? Contradictory statements before a grand jury, recorded and transcribed as they are, constitute some of the most solid evidence that could come before a court. Unless a crime is, for instance, a robbery committed in full view of a surveillance camera, the evidence in a typical criminal trial is likely to be much more ambiguous than the Libby case – and the material facts of non-perjury cases would also rely on a “mishmash of faulty memories” of those who witnessed the event months or years before.

Libby appears to have fallen into a classic perjury trap. He could either have risked violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act [3], or exposed the zeal of his superior, Vice President Richard B. Cheney, to discredit Wilson, [4] or he could have simply tried to brazen his way out by claiming the multitude of journalist he spoke with told him of Valerie Plame’s identity, rather than the other way around. He appears to have chosen the last course of action.

The odds that a half dozen witnesses had uniformly “faulty memories” rather than Libby is implausible, particularly as Libby’s defense is based on the allegation of his own faulty memory: yet he adamantly insists that they told him.

One can only conclude that rather than being an overzealous prosecutor, Fitzgerald is being overly cautious. The perjury charge being easy to prove, that is the case he would bring before a jury. In fact, the testimony of Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer, other administration witnesses, as well as the numerous big-foot Washington journalists, combined with the evidence of Vice President Cheney’s interest in the case, suggests not just perjury, but a criminal conspiracy to use government resources to defame a citizen. Perhaps if Fitzgerald is as tough as his reputation, he will solicit evidence of criminal conspiracy from Libby during the sentencing phase.

Let us now demolish Ms. Toensing’s six bills of indictment in turn:

a. Patrick Fitzgerald is an out-of-control prosecutor. Ms. Toensing presents her own “mishmash” of assertions intended to prove Fitzgerald’s animus, yet she proves nothing. In particular, her statement that Richard Armitage had identified Plame as a covert operative at about the same time as Libby is alleged to have done so is doubly irrelevant. Armitage’s blurting out of Plame’s identity would not have lessened any other government official’s duty to keep her CIA job secret, as Armitage manifestly did not have the power of on-the-spot declassification. And even if his statement had become public, no other official had the right to confirm it. His slip, or crime, did not release other government employees from their affirmative obligation to obey the law, just as your neighbor’s hypothetical commission of petty larceny does not make it OK for you to do it. And, in any case, Libby is not formally charged with doing what Armitage did; he is charged with lying to a grand jury.

b. It’s the CIA’s fault. The Central Intelligence Agency has been a favorite scapegoat of the Right since the “Team B” hallucination of the mid-1970s. Ms. Toensing asserts that although the CIA requested an investigation of the leak of Plame’s identity, Fitzgerald never introduced any evidence that Libby violated the law by leaking her identity – the suggestion being that the CIA was pursuing a vendetta, aided and abetted by Fitzgerald. Again, and for the last time, Libby has been charged with perjury, not leaking.

c. It’s Joe Wilson’s fault. Ms. Toensing blows her shrill tin horn by way of announcing that the victim of this drama is really the perpetrator. In so doing, she also restates the falsehood (a perennial Republican National Committee talking point) that Plame was not a covert CIA operative. If that were the case, why is Plame enjoined by her secrecy agreement from stating that she was, in fact, a covert operative, in anything she might write? The “Plame-not-a-covert-operative” meme is of the same genus as the myth of Iraqi WMD: no matter how thoroughly it is debunked, some will believe it.

d. It’s the media’s fault. Here Ms. Toensing must skillfully execute a delicate political operation. Notwithstanding her amicus curae brief on behalf of a journalist and a “journalist” in this very case, the media are somehow indicted because they wrote editorials after the fact pressing for indictment of the leaker of the identity of a CIA operative. Her opinion represents an interesting inversion of the usual Right Wing tropism: ordinarily, government secrecy must remain secret, and it is not the business of the press, much less the common herd of voting citizens, to know about it. Yet now she is oddly indulgent of those who would leak the identities of CIA operatives, as if she were cheering on Phillip Agee. This is quite a switch from her usual tack, which is to advocate secret, unaccountable surveillance of US citizens. [5] Why the sudden 180, if not pure partisanship?

e. It’s Ari Fleischer’s fault. Another out-of-government red herring. If Fleischer’s testimony is damning because it contradicts the statements of another witness on some points, then that charge applies tenfold to Libby.

f. It’s the Justice Department’s fault. It was to his credit that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft (author of numerous inanities while in office) announced a potential conflict of interest in a political matter, and referred the Plame case to an independent counsel. Ms. Toensing simply ignores the conflict of interest angle and insinuates a variety of implausible motives, such as Ashcroft’s presumably clairvoyant conclusion that he would be replaced after the 2004 election.

Hatchet jobs of this caliber are old hat for Ms. Toensing of diGenova and Toensing, LLP, K Street. Two years ago, she unburdened herself with a similar effusion on the Libby/Plame case, also in the Washington Post op-ed page. [6] In that propaganda piece, she (and the Post) failed to disclose that key witness Robert Novak, whom she mentioned nine times, was a friend of hers.

Thus it is that one becomes an expert in Washington. Substantive knowledge applied with intellectual honesty is unnecessary; all that is required is brazen assertion, assisted by the Powers-That-Be at the Post editorial board.

WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] “Trial in Error: If You’re Going to Charge Scooter, Then What About These Guys?”, Victoria Toensing, Washington Post, 18 February 2007. The Post, like all major metropolitan dailies, gives lavish space not only to fake experts by the score, but to horribly discredited scoundrels like Douglas Feith (the latter as recently as 14 February), William Kristol, and Robert Kagan. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall at these papers’ editorial board decisions on whether to print the latest transparent lie by Feith et al. Is the decision taken freely, out of some unerring editorial preference for drivel? Or is the board swayed by the prospect of government disfavor if one of its golden boys receives a rejection? Or perhaps Northrop-Grumman will cease placing full-page ads for their latest wonder weapon if the Post or similar dailies fail to give “equal time” to fraudulent arguments. A biologist espousing Lysenkoism, or a chemist touting phlogiston theory would be unlikely to get space in a major newspaper; but the most idiotic and criminal political notion is apparently exempt from editorial disfavor, as long as the author’s resume implies some connection to power, money, or influence.

[2] What grown man, let alone a middle aged Jewish political lawyer, would consent to be called Scooter? Libby is moreover an unlikely martyr for the Right: a mere six years ago, he was the attorney representing one of the criminals benefiting from the Clinton “Pardongate” about which the Right made such a pother. Libby’s client, Marc Rich, was a particularly odious economic criminal and swindler, having been convicted of having illegal dealings with Iran, now ironically the chief demon in the Right’s axis of evil. As in Orwell’s 1984, the government and its captive press can shove historical facts in and out of the Memory Hole without anyone noticing.

[3] Ms. Toensing alleges that as a staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1982, she was a guiding light behind the drafting of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act; her current representation is that the statute somehow does not apply in the Libby case. Strictly speaking, Fitzgerald has not applied it in his prosecution, mainly because Libby apparently perjured himself precisely to obstruct a determination as to whether he had in fact violated that law. To refute her underlying charge that the law is somehow irrelevant to Libby’s actions, it is necessary to reproduce the provision in full; the reader can judge for himself:

TITLE 50, UNITED STATES CODE Sec. 421. Protection of identities of certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources (a) Disclosure of information by persons having or having had access to classified information that identifies covert agent Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent’s intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined not more than $50,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both. (b) Disclosure of information by persons who learn identity of covert agents as result of having access to classified information Whoever, as a result of having authorized access to classified information, learns the identify of a covert agent and intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent’s intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined not more than $25,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both. (c) Disclosure of information by persons in course of pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents Whoever, in the course of a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents and with reason to believe that such activities would impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States, discloses any information that identifies an individual as a covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such individual and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such individual’s classified intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined not more than $15,000 or imprisoned not more than three years, or both. [4] It is hardly surprising, albeit worthy of note, that at the very highest levels of government, officials were more concerned with the op-eds of domestic critics like Wilson than, for instance, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden; the provisioning of US troops with adequate armor; or the need to seek restitution for the $10 billion which the Department of Defense Inspector General has estimated was lost through fraud and over-billing in Iraq. Instead, Vice President Cheney was apparently so obsessed with Wilson that he ordered government employees to make transcripts of the news/entertainment show “Hardball” for his perusal.

[5] See, for instance, “Terrorists on Tap: Do Al Gore and other Democrats really want to keep the government from finding al Qaeda agents in the U.S.?”, Victoria Toensing, Wall Street Journal, 22 January 2006.

[6] “The Plame Game: Was This a Crime?”, Victoria Toensing and Bruce W. Sanford, Washington Post, 12 January 2005.