March 06, 2007

Scooter Libby and Lord Levy: Prosecutorial Politics

Scooter Libby, former Chief of Staff to Dick Cheney, has been convicted of four counts of obstructing justice, lying and perjury in Washington today. Mr Libby's fall has made many pundits pontificate about the wider questions that it exposes about official Washington. Andrew Sullivan has called for Mr Libby's boss, Dick Cheney to be impeached and from the other end of the spectrum of views on this, Mark Levin is angry about the way that the prosecution was conducted and has even put the word "Fair" before trial in quotation marks. As a non-lawyer and not being present in the court room I don't know whether the evidence warrents the impeachment of Cheney or whether the trial was misconducted, personally I think that in these circumstances I will stick with what the Jury think at the moment. This comes of course directly upon the related news from the United Kingdom about a leaked email which has comes at the end of the Cash for Honours investigation currently being performed by Scotland Yard.

Libby's fall though has prompted people to raise some more provocative questions about the longterm in the United States. Jonathan Martin thinks that it makes it very difficult for the Republicans in 2008, Frank Luntz is speculating about the long term future of the Republican party itself. Personally I think that's overblown- the damage will be to Bush and to this administration, it might make it harder for a Republican but I still think their candidate will have a chance in 2008 besides a lot may change by then. As to the Republicans' demise, we heard a lot about the democrats' demise two years ago after 2004, the Republicans lost the last congressional election but wouldn't need much to win an election very soon. Seachanges in politics are a commodity more advertised than realised.

Is there anything to say about this in the longterm though? I think there is and its a worrying development on both sides of the channel and its this. The last four decades in American politics have produced serious judicial inquiries into deeds by political appointees- Watergate in the seventies, Iran Contra in the eighties, Monica in the nineties and Scooter in this decade. The Republicans used their years in Congress in the 1990s to investigate every nook and cranny of President Clinton's life in a way that now looks very vindictive- many Democrats want to do the same to George Bush. In the United Kingdom the Political Blogosphere has been convulsed by a culture of secret finding- a website like Guido Fawkes is a font of possible prosecutions against Ministers, petty scandals and the like. What this does though is two things: firstly it completely obliterates politics in terms of a policy discussion about various options to pursue. Guido has often said that he isn't interested in policy- which is fine, each to their own- but it says something about our politics that we take his adolescent ramblings to be the best that the internet can do in terms of influencing British politics. Political discussion becomes through Gresham's Law a sort of mudslinging match- and one can understand why noone apart from the partisan and self righteous that hang out at Guido's and his left wing equivalents' want to participate.

The second important issue is that making losing in politics all about judicial enquiries and assuming that our opponents are completely without merit does huge damage to us ourselves and our own reasoning abilities. Part of the problem say with the right in the United States is the argument that if you opposed the Iraq war, you are an appeaser of Fascist tyranny in every situation and are even worse a Fascist yourself. Part of the problem with the left's rejoinder back is painting everyone supporting the war as a stooge of imperialism. We lose our understanding of politics the moment that we say that those who oppose us aren't worth listening to and can't change our minds on issues. As soon as we say that, as soon as we make them non-persons or so unjust that their arguments are all self serving then we destroy politics as a conversation between equals and turn into a blood sport and a rather unattractive blood sport at that.

I hold no brief for Libby at all nor do I for Lord Levy in the United Kingdom but this trend of prosecutorial politics on both sides of the Atlantic worries me a lot. It seems to cheapen our discourse, to turn people off politics, to make those involved stupider and less able to think and to turn our politics further and further into a mob driven chaos. Its always worth remembering that what we are attempting to do is to break a cycle that the ancient Greeks perceived whereby democracy turned through the accusatory abuse of mobs into a tyranny. It is neccessary in my view for us to stop this way of discussing politics. We ought to prosecute political leaders when they do wrong- but such prosecutions are matters for the courts- for Parliament and the public we need to argue and understand, to listen and think about politics and not just to resort to cheap jabs and throwing custard pies.


Ellee said...

You beat me to it, I wanted to write about this but had to go to a meeting in Cambridge when the news broke. It's interesting how this has happened the same time as the big Levy story. I think it's time our police made a decision about whether to charge him or not, else the press will continue to hound him.

Anyway, off topic, but I didn't know whether this film might interest you, it is being shown in Cambridge 16 Cambridge and sounds very obscure.

Tode said...

Both stories are more important than you imply. The Libby story is directly about the Iraq war: many will see the conviction as showing the lengths the White House will go to discredit those who cast doubt on their use of intelligence.
The Levy story is about good judgement: how could top political operators, who know all about the law, risk leaving themselves open to charges of having broken it? No-one can doubt Blair's political competence or ability, so the main criticism of him is that his judgement is bad, or at least infuriatingly erratic. And Blair has made a particular point of his honesty. So both stories are directly relevant to the centres of the respective administrations.

Gracchi said...

Well Tode I disagree the issues you cite are political issues- like Iraq over which we can and should have an argument- personally I think taht Iraq was an error. But I don't think you can try people for being wrong. Its the criminalisation of being wrong that I object to. As to Levy again if Blair has bad judgement lets discuss the policy areas he's made mistakes on and then have an argument and an election.

On both issues the trials for you seem to be camoflage for a set of political judgements- I would rather you didn't criminalise bad judgement but tried to convince the bad judgers and the rest of us.

If crimes have been committed then lets have trials- but politics is about discussion not about the criminal process.

ashok said...

Gracchi - agreed entirely.

Is there a teaching on political moderation in Cicero that might be worth discussing? I'm not terribly familiar with his writings.

james higham said...

Have to confess I haven't really got into this issue yet. Your post was great at helping out with that and I did like Tode's comment too. I have a better picture now.

Gracchi said...

You are right Cicero might have something to say- the pity is that like you I'm far more exposed to the Greeks than him. Glad you agree its a cancer in my view this criminalisation of politics.

Good James I'm glad.

jf said...

This isn't just about the politics surrounding the war. It is a felony in the U.S. to "out" a covert agent. A CIA agent was murdered several years ago (in Turkey, if I remember correctly) shortly after being outed. The Libby case came out of the leak investigation.

The Libby case has quite a lot more substance than the Monica Lewinsky affair. Clinton lied about consensual sex between adults. Libby lied during a felony investigation related to national security. Your post seems to roughly equate the two.

Do you really think so?

Gracchi said...

No I don't equate the two offences. Though Libby wasn't someone who actually leaked the name- as far as I am aware the people who leaked the name first were Rove and Richard Armitage. Libby is being prosecuted for obstruction of justice and for perjury which is a different thing to actually committing the crime.

As I say if guilty he should go down for a long time but I suppose my concern with this is the turning of politics into a game where each government has a set of investigations into it and lawyers rake over everything that happens. I don't think that's a good thing- especially given the fact that there have been so many investigations into government officials over the last couple of years. I have no doubt some do wrong and ought to be prosecuted but equally I don't think a prosecutorial culture in politics is healthy.

edmund said...

~Richard Armitidge leaked it "if" and "tode" -he was a very strong opponent of the war . He leaked it to Robert Novak one of the most anti-war journalistis in the whle of Washington.

And "if" she was not legally a covert agent- which is why Armitidge has not been prosecuted.Fitzgerald should have shut the investation much more quicly and the justice deparmetn should have made it clear she was not covert so it was irrelevent.

incidenatly everything Wilson said in his publicyt campaign that concenred himself and his mission has turned out to be a lie- e.g. he din't discover what he said. This may explain why people linked info on him-including people like Armitidge who were as anti war as he!

I agree that it's not the same as the Clinto case. He told lies about his actions. LIddy had not done the crime in question and so was not trying to cover it up.MOrover even if you accept sexual harrasement legislation is an unconstitutional absuridy-the fact is Clinton had singed the legislation he was questioned on.

Moreover the libby convicion is based on a clash of recollections- while Clinton's lie was proved by a DNA test.

however this does not mean LIbby should not have been convicted perjusry is a serious offence and the clas of recollections is something that seems to me very much a matter of jury judgement. IT sounds like his conviction is probably right.

Gracchi's statemtn about the distincion between whether one has come to view the Iraq war as a bad idea and whether x is guilty of a crime is so obvious one would call it a truism if that did not appear to be the case.

Gracchi said...

Lets stay off the case about the leak- none of us were in the court room or know the reasons why Rove and Armitage weren't accused.

But I agree with you about this being a trial not a trial of the war.

badmat said...

You're going to have to do better!
This bit:
"what we are attempting to do is to break a cycle that the ancient Greeks perceived whereby democracy turned through the accusatory abuse of mobs into a tyranny"
is unclear and seems inaccurate: the general view from Aristotle on was that democracy (rule by the poor majority) turned into ohlocracy and then tyranny via the rise of demagogues; not by the abuse of mobs - but maybe you are just using 'of' instead of 'by'. But in general you're placing yourself as a friend of some form of oligarchy. It was right to put Socrates on trial you know!

Gracchi said...


I suppose you have two points here.

The first is historical about the Greeks. There are plenty of Greeks not just Aristotle- and there were plenty of crucial writers before Aristotle. By the way on the issue of mobs- think of Xenophon's account of the meeting of the Athenian assembly after the battle of Arginusae which voted to condemn the generals. Upon what did Plato and Aristotle see the demagogue afterall depending if not a mob.

As for your other point. Well no I'm not arguing for oligarchy at all- if anything this could be twisted into an argument for meritocracy- a different thing than the rule of the wealthy. What I am arguing about is the way that we behave within a system that is democratic- this is an argument about the ethics of political argument not an argument about a choice of system. We have duties as citizens of a democracy and one of those duties is to take our opponents seriously- if we don't in my opinion we end up destabilising the democracy we live in, not understanding politics, not understanding our own ideas and being pretty unpleasant people. I don't think there is a word there about changing the system to aristocracy.

As to Socrates- if you are half the classicist you pretend to be, you'd admit judging cases from Ancient Athens at an unstable political time with few sources is a perilous matter. I prefer to reserve judgement- democracies can make mistakes- they can even be immoral in the way they act. The trial of Socrates is not something I'm prepared to judge about at this distance.

edmund said...

ins't a mertiocracy rather close to an aristocracy in the Aristolean sense?

Paulie said...


Surely it's just one of many things on the continuum between mob-rule and aristocracy? You could say that representative government is close as aristocracy in an Aristolean sense by the same argument.

But it isn't, really, is it? (unless you plan to ambush us all with a spot of relativism)


edmund said...

paulie i thought aristocracy for aristole meant rule by the best-which would be the same as meritocracy would it not?

am actualy asking a genuine question!

and gracchi given fitzgerald knows who linked it why on erath would he not prosecute if it were illegal?