Libby Case Shows How D.C. Runs

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby lost today, and the Bush administration comes out of his trial looking venal and vindictive, but some say the real loser in the investigation into who leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame is the media -- specifically, the Washington, D.C., media.

"The media looks sloppy. It looks kind of confused, and it looks, in some cases, like stenographers to the administration," says political correspondent John Dickerson.

To understand Dickerson's charge, go back to 2002 and 2003.

During the buildup to the Iraq War, critics say, the mainstream media failed to aggressively question the evidence the administration presented -- since proved erroneous -- about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

And for many media critics, the Libby trial raised the question of whether the cozy relationship between reporters and the policymakers they cover was to blame.

Cocktails and Gossip

"Washington is a city in which you have the public message and then you have the hidden agenda. And almost everybody in Washington has some kind of hidden agenda," Dickerson said. "It doesn't need to be nefarious, but there is always another story line, and it's the reporter's job to find out what the real story line is. And sometimes, to get the real story line, you need a conversation that's a little more gossipy than something that's very formal."

Gossipy interaction over cocktails, information about Wilson's wife casually dropped over cocktails or a coffee, here and there, hither and yon. Part of the zeitgeist's indictment of the media is that reporters have been too close with the administration, a friendliness perhaps seen most glaringly in the relationship between Libby and former New York Times reporter Judy Miller, whose front page reporting helped the administration make the public case about Iraq's WMDs.

Asked during his grand jury testimony whether there was a reason Libby met Miller at her hotel rather than his office, Libby said having less formal meetings was part of the nature of his job.

"Part of my job to talk to the press about different sorts of things and one of the types of things we do when we talk to them is, you know, here's how the administration generally is thinking about Iraq … usually as an off-the-record discussion over lunch just to orient them to how we think about a problem," he said.

It was during that dish session at the St. Regis Hotel that Libby told Miller that Ambassador Joe Wilson -- a critic of the administration's case for war -- was sent by the CIA to investigate evidence in Africa only because his wife Valerie Plame worked for the CIA, not because the vice president's office sent him.

"It was a piece of gossip too powerful to not put out because it, in a single moment, undermined Wilson's case," Dickerson explained.

From Formal Interviews to Casual Conversations

Wilson had served at the U.S. mission in Baghdad before the first Gulf War, and had been a diplomat in Niger, Burundi and South Africa; his wife claims she did not send him to Niger in 2002 for the CIA. But the Bush administration had its story to get out. How did it? An audiotape from the trial reveals a conversation between former State Department official Richard Armitage and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward dishing about Joe Wilson's wife. (You can listen to an excerpt of Woodward's tape recording of their conversation BY CLICKING HERE.)

"It's kind of a gossip session," Dickerson said. "And they both have a kind of cackle over this -- over this news. It's not exactly what we would think of as a sort of formal, strait-laced interview."

And certainly not what most people might associate with the man who helped bring down President Nixon -- the idea that his conversations were just like those of kids sitting around gossiping.

"Although, as you know, reporters sometimes really get their best stuff when they develop a relationship where the commerce between the two people is incredibly informal, where it's gossip, and where the kind of formality of an interview drops," Dickerson said.

Mary Matalin, once a counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, said this is the culture of Washington.

"The way people trade information and gossip in this town is the coin of the realm. And that's how it operates," she said.

Matalin also said there's nothing wrong with the practice.

"How many conversations have you and I had over the years? Yes -- we work in the same business. We know what the borders are and the parameters of our relationship, but people, reporters and politicians have the same passion for all of this that we do," she said. "It is completely possible that you would be having a cocktail party conversation or a casual conversation in which neither party … meant it to be news or reporting."

Foes at Work, Friends After Hours

Another former aide to Vice President Cheney, Juleanna Glover Weiss, may be known around town as much for her successful cocktail parties as for her work as a political operative.

"I think it's important that people know each other in a larger context, and understand each other and their backgrounds, and are able to converse in a manner that isn't 'I need an answer on the record in the next five seconds,'" Glover Weiss said.

So she brings together Democrats and Republicans, politicians and reporters -- so many so that it's hard to find one who doesn't know her, and like her.

Washington is very much a company town. Matalin, too, played a bit part in the case, having advised Libby how to deal with the press. The chattering classes were all atwitter with notes Libby took while meeting with her: "Tim hates Chris," he wrote, referring to NBC Washington, D.C., bureau chief and "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert and MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews. Matalin suggested that this was an inaccurate shorthand Libby used to describe a complex professional relationship between Russert and Matthews. Matthews criticized the administration over the case for war during that time, while during the trial, former Cheney press aide Cathie Martin testified that she "suggested we put the vice president on 'Meet the Press,' which was a tactic we often used. It's our best format."

And Dickerson's name came up, since he had been advised by White House officials to look into who sent Wilson on his trip to Africa.

"The relationship between sources and reporters, if it works perfectly in Washington, reminds me of the old Bugs Bunny cartoon with Sam the sheepdog and the wolf," Dickerson said. "And they're pals. And they come to the field. They clock in. And they spend the rest of the day trying to beat each other's brains out. The whistle blows and they clock out, and they're friends again."

Matalin said that's just the way things get done in D.C.

"I know they all made it look ugly to the [public] beyond the bubble, but it really is then -- it's a time-honored way of doing business in any political situation. It was ever thus, back to Machiavelli," she said. "It's good for you; it's good for me; it's good for Democrats; it's good for everybody. It's mostly good for the public."

But in the case for war, it was not good for the public. And in the end it was certainly not good for Libby.