Smoke Gets in Our Eyes

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 31, 2005

There's a reason so many top officials of the Bush administration treat the truth as if it were kryptonite.

More than anything else, the simple truth has the potential to destroy the Bush gang.

Scooter Libby was one of the most powerful figures in the administration, Dick Cheney's most highly trusted aide and a champion of the wholesale flim-flammery that led us into the crucible of Iraq. I haven't heard anyone express surprise that he would lie in the service of the administration.

But if the federal indictment returned last week in Washington is to be believed, Mr. Libby lied with the kind of reckless disregard for his own interests that would suggest he had become unhinged. It was as if he'd waved red flags in front of the grand jury and cried, "Come get me!"

You will hardly ever hear of someone who is skilled in the art of government, and a lawyer to boot, telling the kind of transparent lies that Mr. Libby is accused of telling the F.B.I. and a federal grand jury.

The indictment says, for example, that he told the feds he'd had a discussion with N.B.C.'s Tim Russert in which Mr. Russert asserted that "all the reporters" knew that Valerie Wilson, the wife of the former diplomat Joseph Wilson, worked for the C.I.A. In fact, according to the indictment and Mr. Russert, no such discussion occurred.

Mr. Libby himself was spreading the word about Ms. Wilson and, as Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel investigating the case, asserted, "he lied about it afterwards, under oath and repeatedly."

Who knows why Mr. Libby did what he did. Misplaced loyalty? An irrepressible need to be punished for his sins? Maybe he's just a dope. Of greater consequence for the republic is the fact that Mr. Libby is no hapless functionary who somehow lost his way. He's a symptom, the hacking cough that should alert us to a dangerous national disease, and that's the Bush administration's culture of deceit.

Scooter Libby was the main man of the most powerful vice president in the history of the United States. The most important aspect of the prosecution of Mr. Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice is the tremendous spotlight it is likely to shine on the way this administration does its business - its relentless, almost pathological, undermining of the truth, and its ruthless treatment of individuals who cling to the old-fashioned notion that the truth matters.

Condoleezza Rice, for example, gave us nightmare fantasies of mushroom clouds and declared on television that aluminum tubes seized en route to Iraq "were only really suited for nuclear weapons programs." Perhaps she forgot that a year earlier her own staff had been advised that experts had serious doubts about that. In any event, she would be promoted to secretary of state.

Gen. Eric Shinseki met a different fate when, as chief of staff of the Army, he dared to speak an uncomfortable truth to a Senate committee: that it would take several hundred thousand soldiers to pacify postwar Iraq. There was no promotion for him. His long and honorable career evaporated.

That's the game plan of this administration, to fool the people as much as possible (not just on the war, but on taxes, Social Security, energy policy and so on) and punish, if not destroy, anyone who tries to counter the madness with the truth.

Most members of the administration are more artful than Scooter Libby when they send out the smoke that is designed to hide the truth on important matters. They dissemble and give themselves wiggle room, like Dick Cheney when he said, truthfully but deceptively on "Meet the Press," that he didn't know Joseph Wilson. The vice president didn't know him personally, but he sure knew what was going on.

The art of Bush-speak is to achieve the effect of a lie without actually getting caught in a lie. That's what administration officials did when they deliberately fostered the impression that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda and thus was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. This is an insidious way of governing, and the opposite of what the United States should be about.

It should tell you something that the administration's resident sleazemeister, Karl Rove, who is up to his ears in this mess but has managed so far to escape indictment, continues to be viewed not as an embarrassment, but as President Bush's most important and absolutely indispensable asset.