That Sinking Feeling

Alito, Plamegate—there's even no escape in South America for Bush

Having failed to refocus his administration away from Plamegate to such loftier pursuits as putting Samuel Alito on the bench or announcing the nation's plans for fighting a bird flu pandemic, George W. Bush got out of town. First he went to South America, where thousands of protesters greeted him, and soon he'll be off to Asia.

The White House hoped to draw attention away from the indictment of Scooter Libby by setting up what Utah senator Orrin Hatch refers to as "Armageddon" over Alito. But so far the likelihood of such a knock-down-drag-out over this unassuming and uninspiring judge seems far from certain. And anyhow, it will be decided at still-distant January hearings. As for the flu threat, not only does it appear to be overhyped, but the attacks on the president's plans to fight it come from the left for being too little and too late, and from conservatives who fear that health emergencies can be the vehicles for extending the reach of the federal government into uncharted areas.

Bush himself looks like a lost soul, out of touch with reality, and appearing worse off to some than Reagan in his early stages of Alzheimer's. Offices within the White House reportedly are like bunkers, with staff hunkering in fear that the president may lash out at them. "This is not some manager at McDonald's chewing out the help," a source with close ties to the White House told the Daily News. "This is the president of the United States, and it's not a pleasant sight."

Although a prosecutorial target, Karl Rove remains in place as the president's brain. Without him, aides say, Bush would be lost. Chief of Staff Andrew Card has tried to jump in, answering questions when Bush drifts off. Every so often the president is said to come alive. Cruel observers wonder aloud whether Bush Jr. is back on the bottle.


Meter's running on the Libby case

As details of Scooter Libby's defense surface little by little, it appears that Vice President Dick Cheney's former right-hand man will be dragged along through a lengthy (and very expensive) legal process, one that from his point of view can best be concluded after the 2006 midterm election with a pardon. The alternative is being proven guilty by a jury and sent away for a couple of years.

The defense, led by two attorneys from prestigious law firms, will be pricey. Theodore V. Wells Jr., a partner in Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, has represented such well-heeled clients as Philip Morris and such politicians as former labor secretary Raymond Donovan and Clinton agriculture secretary Mike Espy. William Jeffress Jr., out of the storied Houston oil law firm of Baker Botts, comes highly recommended as the man who got public officials off on such charges as money laundering and vote buying. It doesn't hurt that Jeffress works for a law firm whose senior partner is James Baker, the Bush family confidant who handled the 2000 Florida vote count case that won Bush the presidency, and who had served the elder Bush as secretary of state. More than any other person, Baker is responsible for propelling the family into the limelight with his handling of the elder Bush's GOP primary campaign in 1980. Although Bush lost to Reagan in that contest, it won him the vice presidency.

Lawyers outside the Libby case say his lead attorneys easily could get upwards of $600 an hour, not including the cost of support personnel. The investigation in its first 15 months cost the government $723,000, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Some attorneys speculate that the strategy will be aimed at avoiding a trial, instead dragging things out through endless courtroom tussles with lawyers over reporters' testimony. In the end, Libby will receive a pardon to "clear his name," as he currently seeks to do.

Libby was formerly a lawyer in private practice who defended such clients as Marc Rich, the fugitive financier pardoned by Bill Clinton in 2001. But Libby is not generally thought of as a wealthy person. His defense funds will have to be raised, presumably from Bush campaign funders.

His situation is not enviable. Patrick Fitzgerald's indictment is rock solid.

Michael J. Madigan, a well-known criminal defense lawyer who is a former prosecutor, told The Washington Post last week that Libby's two white-collar-crime attorneys are great but will have "one hand tied behind their back." They are taking on a case, noted Madigan, "with Libby having given two different statements to the FBI and testifying twice to the grand jury, in which he contradicts three reporters and four or five of his friends in the administration. If I was entering the case, I would not be really happy to have that situation."

Footnote: A Greek newspaper reports that Philip Agee, a former CIA officer who sought to out undercover CIA employees in the 1970s and whose actions led to the passage of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, says he now opposes such activities and specifically opposes the outing of Valerie Plame. Agee has been quoted as explaining, "I had my reasons for revealing the identities of agents, and the White House had different ones. However, I am now categorically opposed to making their names public."

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