The conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby on charges of perjury should come as no surprise. He is only the most recent U.S. official to run afoul of the law as the result of an errant war. All too often, attempts to justify wayward wars have led U.S. leaders to exaggerate threats and defame critics, resorting to political, and sometimes criminal, machinations.
President Nixon was brought down by the Watergate scandal, an indirect byproduct of the misguided Vietnam War. After Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, exposing the misjudgments that had mired the United States in Vietnam, the Nixon administration attempted to discredit him, going so far as to break into his psychiatrist’s office. Obsessed with secrecy and fueled by paranoia, the administration was soon bugging the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex, ultimately resulting in Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.
President Reagan similarly fell prey to questionable military adventures and the temptation to deny them afterward. Completely circumventing congressional restrictions, his administration sold missiles to Iran and shuttled the cash to Contra militias in Nicaragua. The Iran-Contra scandal led to multiple indictments and came close to bringing down Reagan’s presidency.
It’s apparent now that the Bush administration sold the war in Iraq by exaggerating dangers and using skewed intelligence. The president and his advisors played fast and loose with the facts, intimating that Saddam Hussein was implicated in the 9/11 attacks and was amassing weapons of mass destruction.
The next steps were to smear those who cried foul, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, European political leaders and any military leaders who thought troop projections were unrealistic. Joseph C. Wilson IV became a prime target for the war hawks in 2003. As a diplomat with firsthand knowledge of Iraq, he spoke with credibility. He had personally investigated whether Iraq was trying to acquire uranium for weapons, so when he contradicted the White House, he further unraveled the already tattered rationale for invading Iraq.
Defending the war mandated impugning Wilson. As evidence in Libby’s trial showed, the former vice presidential aide was assigned that task, and—barring a successful appeal or presidential pardon—his attempt to cover his tracks will land him in jail. Trapped by its own faulty justifications for war, an obsessed White House again crossed the line.
In response to the Vietnam War and Watergate, Congress pushed back with the War Powers Act and other measures that constrained the emergency powers of the presidency, extended congressional oversight of intelligence and strengthened Congress’ right to review executive agreements. Libby’s conviction should serve as a wake-up call for Congress to respond with similar vigor today.
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