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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now, our two regular political observers. David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back, David.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you again, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post; Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): And you, too.

SIEGEL: We're going to talk about Scooter Libby possibly for the last time, David Brooks. And I gather, if so, you'll be delighted.

Mr. BROOKS: That would make me very happy. I've thought this whole thing was a farce from beginning to end. You know, I'm so old I can remember when it started out as the case about outing CIA agents. And that I remember many of my liberal friends, including this gentleman to my right in the studio, were greatly offended that somebody had outed the CIA agent. And that's when everybody thought it was Karl Rove who was the guy who did the outing. Then it turned into Richard Armitage and suddenly nobody cared about that. And to me, that illuminated one of the core things of this whole scandal, which is that it is primarily driven by partisanship. And the level of hypocrisy from start to finish has been astounding.

Even on the perjury trial, all these conservatives who were furious over Bill Clinton's perjury were not upset at all over Scooter Libby's perjury. Democrats who were quite willing to excuse Bill Clinton's perjury were flown(ph) fact over Scooter Libby. So to me, partisanship is the big story here.

SIEGEL: And before I let your liberal colleague answer that, I will say that I'm old enough to remember when you said there should have been some time served for this.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. My basic view was that - my view is two things. First, that this was political. Second, that Scooter Libby was guilty of perjury. And I think there's no doubt he was guilty of perjury. And therefore, he deserved a punishment, but I don't think it was the punishment in scale with the political farce of the scandal.

SIEGEL: E.J., the floor is yours.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, I think this is the definition of a deeply controversial issue when people look at exactly the same thing and see something completely different. As I see it, what happened is that Joe Wilson came out and attacked the Bush administration's claim that Saddam was building nuclear weapons, undercut that argument. They went after him by leaking the fact that his wife had been in the CIA and then they got caught. And then they went into a cover-up. And that's where this case came from.

And Patrick Fitzgerald pursued this case because he was absolutely certain, and he had reason to believe it, that he was being lied to. And I think this case is still all about on the larger level, how the administration made a case for war and was willing to discredit its opponents and break the law in the process.

By commuting Scooter Libby's sentence, the president closed off any possibility there may have been that Scooter Libby would cooperate with Patrick Fitzgerald and tell his whole story. And it's very interesting - it'll be interesting someday to find out that Scooter Libby knew all along that he was never going to go to jail.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, does this story have - does it have legs as a political issue? Is it something that people, as we say beyond the beltway, care about much?

Mr. BROOKS: I've never found people care about it. I've never found it move the polls one way or another. I've never found that it's a campaign issue. I don't hear anybody talking about it with the possible exception of Fred Thompson, and aside from this, a news bump that we're going to get in the next few days. Compared to the issues of the Iraq war, the Justice are fighting it the way it was fought.

SIEGEL: So simply put, this is an issue of the Iraq war. This is a subset of the Iraq war.

Mr. BROOKS: If it was an issue of the Iraq war, why isn't Richard Armitage prosecuted? Why isn't nobody interested in that, that he was the primary leaker for Robert Novak?

Mr. DIONNE: Because Richard Armitage told the truth early and that's why he never got caught up in this.

Mr. BROOKS: Patrick Fitzgerald knew from day one - we don't need to get back in (unintelligible) about this…

Mr. DIONNE: But that's important.

Mr. BROOKS: Patrick Fitzgerald knew from day one that Richard Armitage was the primary leaker and he continued this prosecution for everyone. Nonetheless, the issues people are going to vote on, in regards to the Iraq war, is the competence with which it was fought, the intelligence about going in. Believe me, this is a small, minor, inconsequential sub-story of that.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I think it absolutely isn't. I think it, both on a symbolic level, which David can fight if he wants, but also on a real level, this became a story about how the administration sold this war. And before we went to war, they were willing to say all kinds of things that turned out to be, at best, questionable. I still remember the Condoleezza Rice line that we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud. So this case was actually intimately connected to the way in which the administration persuaded a reluctant country to go to war. And that's why it's taken off.

SIEGEL: I mean let us move on to one other point, which is the process. Is there anything unseemly here at all, David, in your view, of how the president went about commuting the sentence? As there still actually was a little bit more time yet, well, he might have awaited the results of appeals.

Mr. BROOKS: No. I think it was a reasonably good process. I've talked to people in the White House about how it was conducted. They did not talk to the Department of Justice. They looked at the transcript. They decided that Scooter Libby had lied, had committed perjury. And they didn't think, on that basis, they could do a pardon because he deserved to be punished and that conviction deserved to stand. Nonetheless, they did think that the process was overly politicized, that the 30-month sentence was longer than some people had recommended, and that a just penalty was what they came up, which is essentially losing his career, losing his life savings, but not being away family for those 30 months.

SIEGEL: E.J., your thoughts on the process?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, first of all, if the real problem had been the 30 months was too much and he should have gotten a shorter sentence, the president could have commuted it to the shorter sentence and not gotten rid of the sentence at all. And I think that is going to be a major source of controversy that…

SIEGEL: He decided he didn't merit jail time. He didn't merit prison time.

Mr. DIONNE: Exactly. And that the president's fundraisers could raise $250,000 in a day if they may have already raised what he has owed, so I'm not sure how serious a penalty that is. And I still think what it goes back to is that because Scooter Libby may have known all along, but certainly knows now, that he will face no jail time, he has no intent of whatsoever to cooperate if Patrick Fitzgerald chose to push the case forward.

SIEGEL: But there's no indication though…

Mr. BROOKS: There's no evidence. There's no evidence of that.

SIEGEL: …that Patrick Fitzgerald is continuing the investigation though.

Mr. DIONNE: No. But Fitzgerald in his own file exhibits has expressed enormous frustration over the fact that Scooter Libby's story to him, which turned out not to be true, got in the way of pushing the case forward.

SIEGEL: So for you, the moral is it chose a stonewalling pace.

Mr. DIONNE: Exactly.

SIEGEL: And David, you would say…

Mr. BROOKS: I would say that the moral is that the process of politics has been turned into a process of scandal.

SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thank you both very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times. E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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