On March 6 a jury found the vice president's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice in the case of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The original, investigation-triggering question-who leaked Plame's link to the spy agency?-by then was long lost in a four-year partisan maelstrom that had liberals claiming the Plame affair was the biggest presidential scandal since Watergate.
What started the case was a 2002 trip to Niger by Plame's husband, U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, to determine whether Iraq had attempted to buy "yellowcake," or enriched uranium. Wilson's conclusion was no, and he later asserted that the Bush administration leaked Plame's identity to retaliate against Wilson for his opposition to the Iraq war.
During the ensuing investigation, Libby, among others, testified before a grand jury-testimony that prosecutors later said contained contradictions. By the time prosecutors indicted Libby, the world knew it was actually State Department official Richard Armitage who had dropped Plame's name to newspaper columnist Robert Novak. Still prosecutors indicted Libby, charging that criminal intent, and not forgetfulness, caused his testimonial errors.
Libby's conviction sparked an avalanche of mail protesting what many saw as scape-goating rather than a legitimate prosecution. Federal judge Reggie B. Walton was inundated with requests for clemency but sentenced Libby to two-and-a-half years in prison and a $250,000 fine. That made Libby the highest-ranking official sentenced to prison since the Iran-Contra affair.
In an unusual move, Walton released the pre-sentencing letters requesting clemency, revealing an unusual coalition of Libby supporters, including UN ambassador John Bolton and Democratic strategist James Carville.
On July 2, President Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence, calling it "excessive," but left in place the fine as well as two years' probation. The decision ignited an uproar on Capitol Hill: Republicans hailed what they considered a corrective measure. Democrats charged that Bush was-yet again in their estimation-flouting the rule of law. In commuting the sentence, Bush cited Libby's long history of honorable public service and said he would not rule out the possibility of a full pardon in the future.
Also in March ...
Congress on March 6 opened hearings on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys in December 2006. At issue: whether President Bush was simply exercising his constitutional authority to staff the justice department, or getting rid of lawyers who didn't place a premium on prosecuting Democrats. During the hearings, at least two of the fired attorneys testified that they felt pressure to move quickly on partisan cases. Meanwhile, Bush administration officials pointed out that previous presidents, including President Bill Clinton, had replaced most of the U.S. attorneys serving at the time they took office. In the end, the battle produced a big-game casualty: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned in August amid allegations of perjury before Congress.
U.S. Army officials on March 12 announced that Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley submitted a request for retirement. Kiley, surgeon general of the Army, bowed out in the face of heavy criticism over shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Army Secretary Francis Harvey resigned over the scandal, and Walter Reed chief Major General George Weightman was fired March 1 after a controversial Washington Post series revealed that many wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan were hospitalized in a dilapidated building with mold, leaky ceilings, rot, and rodents. On March 31 President Bush toured the facility to speak to wounded soldiers and publicly apologized for their physical and bureaucratic ordeals.
The United States on March 1 charged Australian David Hicks with aiding the Taliban. Captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 by the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance, Hicks spent over five years imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. In late March, Hicks became the first person tried-and convicted-under the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Sentenced to seven years in prison but credited for time served, Hicks in May was flown back to Australia where he served the remaining months of his sentence in a high-security wing of Yatala Labour Prison in Adelaide. He is scheduled for release before the end of 2007.
Menu Foods, maker of dozens of wet pet-food brands, in mid-March recalled hundreds of products after a rash of kidney failure in pets. About 300 dogs and cats died after eating pet foods containing a wheat-gluten ingredient imported from China. The ingredient was later found to be contaminated with melamine, a strong plastic laminate material that is not allowed in foods. More than 100 lawsuits were filed against companies that sold the tainted chow.
In August, San Francisco attorney William Audet filed a class-action suit against Binzhou Futian Biological Technology Co., the Chinese company that supplied the toxic ingredient. He may have trouble collecting damages, though: The Chinese government shut down Binzhou in May.
Iran's hardline Revolutionary Guard on March 23 captured 15 British sailors and marines whom the Iranians said strayed into their territorial waters. The Britons, a boarding party from the frigate HMS Cornwall, were seized during a routine inspection of a merchant ship. The incident mushroomed into a diplomatic crisis when Iranian authorities hinted they would try the prisoners for espionage. Despite Britain's demands for the seamen's return-and escalating nuclear tensions between Iran and the West-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held the Brits captive for 13 days before releasing them.
For a moment in early spring, the West seemed to pause for a look at a new, old story: March 25 marked the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery-and the first exposure for many to a 19th-century British parliamentarian named William Wilberforce. The film Amazing Grace, released in February nationwide, related the twin tales of Wilberforce's 20-year anti-slavery battle and his struggle to serve God as a Christian while remaining an effective politician. The film also directed worldwide attention to modern-day slavery.