Libby’s Supporters Who Wrote to Judge Learn That Letters Take on New Life on the Web
By NOAM COHEN
In what may be a sign of things to come, the lawyers for I. Lewis Libby Jr. last month invoked the rarely used courtroom tactic: the “bloggers can be mean” defense.
The issue was whether to release the more than 150 letters written to Judge Reggie B. Walton of Federal District Court in Washington, nearly all in support of Mr. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mr. Libby was convicted in March of lying in investigations into the leak of the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency operative, Valerie Plame Wilson. Last week, Judge Walton sentenced Mr. Libby to 30 months in prison.
As the judge considered the appropriate punishment, he received testimonials to Mr. Libby’s character from luminaries like former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and Paul D. Wolfowitz, who was pressured to resign the Word Bank presidency amid charges that he engaged in favoritism in the employment of his girlfriend.
When representatives of the news media asked that the letters be released, Mr. Libby’s lawyers argued against that, saying it “needlessly risks undermining the fair administration of justice.”
Then, alluding to the sometimes combative world of online media, they added there was “the real possibility that these letters, once released, would be published on the Internet and their authors discussed, even mocked, by bloggers.”
The judge rejected these arguments on May 31, though, saying that “the court must strive to be as transparent as possible without compromising the fairness of the system or the ability of the court to acquire information relevant and helpful to the sentencing process.”
The letters were released Tuesday — with some personal details covered in black ink — and were readily available online. The Washington Post organized them alphabetically by letter writer, and the Smoking Gun, a Web site, quickly had 30 pages ready for easy perusal.
As Mr. Libby’s lawyers feared, the bloggers came to mock. The Libby trial has been a favorite of liberal blogs. One, Firedoglake, committed to “live blogging” the trial.
One blogger, Rick Perlstein, writing at commonsense.ourfuture.org, belittled Mr. Bolton’s letter in support of Mr. Libby: “So there it is: yes, maybe he perjured himself. But only because he was so busy protecting us ... Don’t you, dear judge, want us protected from Armageddon?”
Kagro X, writing at the site the Next Hurrah, took on Kenneth L. Adelman’s letter by recalling his prediction about the war in Iraq being a “cakewalk.” As Mr. Adelman, Kagro wrote: “I’m a great judge of character, Your Honor. Trust me! Sentencing is gonna be a cakewalk!”
Asked about the amount of mocking he had seen online, Bill Moore, a lawyer who contributes to the blog Watching Those We Chose (proctoringcongress.blogspot.com), said: “There is some, sure — not an undue amount. Some of the stuff that goes on needs to be mocked.”
The principle was more important, said Mr. Moore, who personally wrote a brief to the court asking that the letters be made public. “If the powerful in our government are asking for someone to be spared, we ought to know,” he said. “The purpose of the letters is to influence the judge on sentencing, and if there is influence that ought to be transparent.”
Marcy Wheeler, one of the bloggers who helped cover the trial for Firedoglake, said the argument concerning mockery indicated that the Libby legal team “may be frustrated by the amount of attention paid on this trial that otherwise wouldn’t have been paid.”
“If you want to dismiss transparency,” she said, “just talk about bloggers.”
Phone messages left with Mr. Libby’s lawyers on Friday were not returned.
Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, agreed that the letters had to be made public because of the serious issues involved, but said that the legal system must address the rapid spread of information online that, in the past, would be available only “in the dusty courthouse file.”
“The act of writing a letter in a much lower-profile case will be on the ‘permanent record’ of the Internet,” he said. “That is a difference, and it is totally sensible to think about if this is what we want.”