AS a weary nation awaited the fade-out of "The Sopranos" last Sunday, the widow of the actual Mafia don John Gotti visited his tomb in Queens to observe the fifth anniversary of his death. Victoria Gotti was not pleased to find reporters lying in wait.
"It's disgusting that people are still obsessed with Gotti and the mob," she told The Daily News. "They should be obsessed with that mob in Washington. They have 3,000 deaths on their hands." She demanded to know if the president and vice president have relatives on the front lines. "Every time I watch the news and I hear of another death," she said, "it sickens me."
Far be it from me to cross any member of the Gotti family, but there's nothing wrong with being obsessed with both mobs. Now that the approval rating for the entire Washington franchise, the president and Congress alike, has plummeted into the 20s, we need any distraction we can get; the Mafia is a welcome nostalgic escape from a gridlocked government at home and epic violence abroad.
But unlikely moral arbiter that Mrs. Gotti may be, she does have a point. As the Iraq war careens toward a denouement as black, unresolved and terrifying as David Chase's inspired "Sopranos" finale, the mob in the capital deserves at least equal attention. John Gotti, the last don, is dead. Mr. Chase's series is over. But the deaths on the nightly news are coming as fast as ever.
True, the Washington mob isn't as sexy as the Gotti or Soprano clans, but there is now a gripping nonfiction dramatization of its machinations available gratis on the Internet, no HBO subscription required. For this we can thank U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who presided over the Scooter Libby trial. Judge Walton's greatest move was not the 30-month sentence he gave Mr. Libby, a fall guy for higher-ups (and certain to be pardoned to protect their secrets). It was instead the judge's decision to make public the testimonials written to the court by members of the Washington establishment pleading that a criminal convicted on four felony counts be set free.
Mr. Libby's lawyers argued that these letters should remain locked away on the hilarious grounds that they might be "discussed, even mocked, by bloggers." And apparently many of the correspondents assumed that their missives would remain private, just like all other documents pertaining to Mr. Libby's former boss, Dick Cheney. The result is very little self-censorship among the authors and an epistolary gold mine for readers.
Among those contributing to the 373 pages of what thesmokinggun.com calls "Scooter Libby Love Letters" are self-identified liberals and Democrats, a few journalists (including a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine) and a goodly sample of those who presided over the Iraq catastrophe or cheered it on. This is a documentary snapshot of the elite Washington mob of our time.
Like the scripts for "The Sopranos," the letters are not without mordant laughs. Henry Kissinger writes a perfunctory two paragraphs, of which the one about Mr. Libby rather than himself seems an afterthought. James Carville co-signs a letter by Mary Matalin tediously detailing Mr. Libby's devotion to organizing trick-or-treat festivities for administration children spending a post-9/11 Halloween at an "undisclosed location." One correspondent writes in astonishment that Mr. Libby once helped "a neighbor who is a staunch Democrat" dig his car out of the snow, and another is in awe that Mr. Libby would "personally buy his son a gift rather than passing the task on to his wife." Many praise Mr. Libby's novel, "The Apprentice," apparently on the principle that an overwritten slab of published fiction might legitimize the short stories he fabricated freelance for a grand jury.
But what makes these letters rise above inanity is the portrait they provide of a wartime capital cut adrift from moral bearings. As the political historian Rick Perlstein has written, one of the recurrent themes of these pleas for mercy is that Mr. Libby perjured himself "only because he was so busy protecting us from Armageddon." Has there ever been a government leader convicted of a crime — and I don't mean only Americans — who didn't see himself as saving the world from the enemy?
The Libby supporters never acknowledge the undisputed fact that their hero, a lawyer by profession, leaked classified information about a covert C.I.A. officer. And that he did so not accidentally but to try to silence an administration critic who called attention to the White House's prewar lies about W.M.D. intelligence. And that he compounded the original lies by lying repeatedly to investigators pursuing an inquiry that without his interference might have nailed others now known to have also leaked Valerie Wilson's identity (Richard Armitage, Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer).
Much has been said about the hypocrisy of those on the right, champions both of Bill Clinton's impeachment and of unflinching immigration enforcement, who call for legal amnesty in Mr. Libby's case. To thicken their exquisite bind, these selective sticklers for strict justice have been foiled in their usual drill of attacking the judge in the case as "liberal." Judge Walton was initially appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan and was elevated to his present job by the current President Bush; he was assigned as well to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by the Bush-appointed chief justice, John Roberts. Such credentials notwithstanding, Judge Walton told the court on Thursday that he was alarmed by new correspondence and phone calls from the Libby mob since the sentencing "wishing bad things" on him and his family.
In Washington, however, hypocrisy is a perennial crime in both parties; if all the city's hypocrites were put in jail, there would be no one left to run the government. What is more striking about the Libby love letters is how nearly all of them ignore the reality that the crime of lying under oath is at the heart of the case. That issue simply isn't on these letter writers' radar screen; the criminal act of perjury isn't addressed (unless it's ascribed to memory loss because Mr. Libby was so darn busy saving the world). Given that Mr. Libby expressed no contrition in court after being convicted, you'd think some of his defenders might step into that moral vacuum to speak for him. But there's been so much lying surrounding this war from the start that everyone is inured to it by now. In Washington, lying no longer registers as an offense against the rule of law.
Instead the letter writers repeat tirelessly that Mr. Libby is a victim, suffering "permanent damage" to his reputation, family and career in the typical judgment of Kenneth Adelman, the foreign-policy thinker who predicted a "cakewalk" for America in Iraq. There's a whole lot of projection going on, because to judge from these letters, those who drummed up this war think of themselves as victims too. In his letter, the disgraced Paul Wolfowitz sees his friend's case as an excuse to deflect his own culpability for the fiasco. He writes that "during the spring and summer of 2003, when some others were envisioning a prolonged American occupation," Mr. Libby "was a strong advocate for a more rapid build-up of the Iraqi Army and a more rapid transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis, points on which history will prove him to have been prescient."
History will prove no such thing; a "rapid" buildup of the Iraqi Army was and is a mirage, and the neocons' chosen leader for an instant sovereign Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi, had no political following. But Mr. Wolfowitz's real point is to pin his own catastrophic blundering on L. Paul Bremer, the neocons' chosen scapegoat for a policy that was doomed with or without Mr. Bremer's incompetent execution of the American occupation.
Of all the Libby worshipers, the one most mocked in the blogosphere and beyond is Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American academic and war proponent who fantasized that a liberated Iraq would have a (positive) "contagion effect" on the region and that Americans would be greeted "in Baghdad and Basra with kites and boom boxes." (I guess it all depends on your definition of "boom boxes.") In an open letter to President Bush for The Wall Street Journal op-ed page on June 8, he embroidered his initial letter to Judge Walton, likening Mr. Libby to a "fallen soldier" in the Iraq war. In Mr. Ajami's view, Tim Russert (whose testimony contradicted Mr. Libby's) and the American system of justice are untrustworthy, and "the 'covertness' of Mrs. Wilson was never convincingly and fully established." (The C.I.A. confirmed her covert status in court documents filed in May.)
Mr. Ajami notes, accurately, that the trial was "about the Iraq war and its legitimacy" — an argument that could also be mustered by defenders of Alger Hiss who felt his perjury trial was about the cold war. But it's even more revealing that the only "casualty of a war" Mr. Ajami's conscience prompts him to mention is Mr. Libby, a figurative casualty rather than a literal one.
No wonder Victoria Gotti denigrated "that mob in Washington." When the godfathers of this war speak of never leaving "a fallen comrade" on the battlefield in Iraq, as Mr. Ajami writes of Mr. Libby, they are speaking first and foremost of one another. The soldiers still making the ultimate sacrifice for this gang's hubristic folly will just have to fend for themselves.