Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Scooter Libby, Jan Hendrik Schön, and Woo-Suk Hwang

The verdict in the Libby trial has been released: guilty on four of the five counts. Finally, somebody is being held accountable for the fraudulent casus belli in Iraq.

One of the things I have found particularly frustrating about the Bush 43 administration is the fact that even though they were caught in a massive fabrication of our reasons for going to war in Iraq (remember the WMD programs? They didn't exist) they have been allowed to continue dominating our foreign policy discourse. In my line of work, getting caught fabricating on even a fraction of that scale is a career-ending scenario. Two cases that come immediately to mind: Jan Hendrik Schön with molecular resistors, and Woo-Suk Hwang with stem cells.

Both Schön and Hwang published ground-breaking papers which, had they actually done the research that they claimed, would almost certainly have resulted in Nobel Prizes in physics and medicine, respectively, by the end of the decade. However, other researchers noticed in both cases that published figures that should have been different were in fact identical. Investigators looking for supporting data in lab notebooks failed to find any. The papers in question were withdrawn. Schön resigned from Bell Labs, and his Ph.D. degree from the University of Konstanz in Germany was revoked. Hwang resigned from Seoul National University, and he was later indicted for fraud and embezzlement, having used some KRW 2.8 billion (about US$3 million) in research funds for purchasing ova used in his experiments (in violation of Korean bioethics law) and for personal purposes.

This, quite properly, is what happens to scientists who are caught in large-scale fabrications. Unfortunately, this does not happen in politics.
It was widely suspected before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and known for certain within a few months afterward, that the US government's claims about Saddam's WMD programs were basically invented out of whole cloth.
One of the most devastating critiques of the pre-war intelligence fabrication was Joseph Wilson's New York Times op-ed of 6 July 2003, "What I Didn't Find in Africa." Wilson stated that the Bush Administration's claims about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger were false, and that they knew or should have known that the claims were false.

Just as the Korean government rose to Hwang's defense when the initial accusations of misconduct surfaced, the US government chose to attack Wilson. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, had been employed by the CIA under non-official cover. Somebody in the government (it is not known for certain, and for reasons discussed below may never be known, exactly who) let reporters know that Plame was a CIA agent, and Robert Novak published this information in his column of 14 July 2003. Shortly thereafter, the CIA asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether this disclosure of an undercover CIA agent's identity violated the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act (50 USC 421-426). In the course of the investigation I. Lewis ("Scooter") Libby made statements to investigators and the grand jury for which he was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and perjury. Libby has now been convicted on four of the five counts in the indictment.

The resolution is not entirely satisfactory yet. Libby successfully obstructed the investigation into whether, and by whom, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act was violated (this was one of the counts on which he was convicted). The people responsible for the initial fabrication of the casus belli in the Iraq war are still running our government. But this is a start.

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