Conventional wisdom in Washington has it that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Just as Al Capone was nailed for tax evasion, so the pundits like to recount, White House schemers end up paying not for their actual schemes, but for the fibs they tell Congress and the grand jury as they try to hide the truth. But, we’re assured, the truth comes out, one way or another. From Richard Nixon’s Watergate burglary to the Reagan administration’s Iran-contra conspiracy to the Bush White House CIA leak scandal, Washington’s high and mighty miscreants are consistently brought low by their efforts to hide the facts, if not by the facts themselves. Or so the wise men say.
It’s not really true, of course. After all, Al Capone went to prison. Whatever the charges that sent him up, he paid a price for the criminal conspiracies he commanded. In Washington, it’s always the flunkies who take the fall. From G. Gordon Liddy to I. Lewis Libby, a parade of loyal lieutenants has marched into court and thrown themselves on their swords to protect their commander.
For that matter, the cover-up, though costly, actually works. The henchmen lie to cover up what really happened; the courts prove that they’re lying, and that’s the end of it. The final act — the one where we learn the truth and the chief plotter faces justice — never takes place. Yes, Richard Nixon resigned, hardly the most onerous punishment for a felony. But he was the last to pay any kind of price for White House crimes. Ronald Reagan apologized, finished his term and even continued his legacy by handing the presidency to his vice president. As for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, they’ve already been assured by the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, that the case is closed. The Libby jury heard a barrage of testimony as to the involvement of White House higher-ups in the leak that started it all, and the verdict indicates that the jurors believed it. But no one will be charged with leaking.
Naturally the cover-up seems worse than the crime. The crime itself is never punished.
One result of the system is a continuous decline in the level of shame. Richard Nixon was involved in a cheap burglary and some shady campaign financing schemes — in an election he was going to win anyway — and close to 40 aides were convicted or indicted as a result. The Reagan White House ran an illegal war off the books and financed it partly by selling arms to Tehran, and fewer than a dozen officials faced charges. The current administration plotted to leak classified information and blow the cover of a CIA agent, and one aide faced charges. The level of White House wrongdoing continually rises, and the price keeps going down.
And here’s the punch line: Sometime this summer, two former officials of Aipac, the pro-Israel lobbying organization, will go on trial for the very crime that we just learned was unpunishable: misuse of classified information. It seems the administration is worried about leaks.