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Published: Saturday, 11/5/2005

What next for Libby?

WHILE the White House and other Americans are catching their breath in the wake of the federal grand jury indictment of I. Lewis Libby, Jr., and his subsequent resignation, it is important to remember the questions left unanswered.

Despite some analysts who are casting this matter in a purely political context - President Bush's credibility, improved prospects for Democrats, etc. - Americans should not lose sight of the fact that, in effect, the No. 4 official in the White House has been indicted on felony charges.

There's President Bush, then his eminence grise, Karl Rove, then Vice President Dick Cheney, and then the five-count indictee, Mr. Libby.

The situation would be grave, whichever party held the White House, in terms of what it says about the state of American leadership. This is a functional issue, not a party politics point.

Also, we still don't know much about the roles in the affair of either Vice President Cheney or President Bush. Worse, neither of them has testified under oath. This is an especially important point in the case of Mr. Cheney; indications are that he told Mr. Libby of Valerie Plame Wilson's CIA identity.

It would also be interesting to know where exactly columnist Robert Novak got Ms. Wilson's name. He is, after all, the one who blew her cover in print, revealing classified information. That takes the matter back to whether a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or the Espionage Act occurred.

Another point which Americans can hope will emerge during the trial of Mr. Libby is why the White House was so frantic, and mobilized itself to such a degree, to discredit former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson's New York Times piece on the non-sale of African nuclear material to Iraq.

A normal response to Mr. Wilson's information would be to put it into perspective, not to seek to destroy his spouse's career to discredit him and the information. Put another way, what was being hidden that made it so essential to destroy Mr. Wilson's credibility?

Finally, it is important that bringing Mr. Libby to trial not take as long as it took Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to get to this point, that is to say, from December, 2003, when he was given the case, to October, 2005, when the grand jury finally brought charges.

The matter dragged past the November, 2004, elections, 11 months after it was handed to Mr. Fitzgerald. If it starts to drag past the November, 2006, congressional elections, there will be reason to smell a large, political rat.

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