When he announced the indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald included a homily on the importance of truth. And, in truth, it sounded a bit quaint, like someone trying to recite the Sermon on the Mount on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. But, of course, Fitzgerald was right. When lying becomes the accepted currency, you haven't got the rule of law but a criminal conspiracy.

All governments lie, but Ronald Reagan and his crew truly raised the bar. From about 1978 on, when the drive to put Reagan in the White House gathered speed, lying was the standard mode for Reagan, his handlers and a press quite happy to retail all the bilge, from the Soviet Union's supposed military superiority to the millionaire welfare queens on the south side of Chicago.

The press went along with it. Year after year, on the campaign trail and then in the White House, the press corps reported Reagan's news conferences without remarking that the commander in chief dwelt mostly in a twilight world of comic-book fables and old movie clips. They were still maintaining this fiction even when Reagan's staff was discussing whether to invoke the 25th Amendment and have the old dotard hauled off to the nursing home.

Lying about Reagan's frail grip on reality was only part of the journalistic surrender. For those who see Judith Miller's complicity in the lying sprees of the neocons as a signal of the decline of the New York Times from some previous plateau of objectivity and competence, I suggest a review of its sometime defense correspondent Richard Burt in the late Carter years, as Al Haig's agent in place. Burt relayed truckloads of threat-inflating nonsense about the military balance in the Cold War, particularly in the European theater, most of them on a level of fantasy matching the lies Miller got from Ahmad Chalabi's disinformers and trundled in print.

When the Reaganites seized power in 1981, Burt promptly threw down his press badge and went to work in the State Department as director of Politico-Military Affairs, a post previously held by another former New York Times man, Leslie Gelb, no garden rose, but not a two-timer on the order of Burt. At least Miller didn't go and officially work for Cheney.

Many of the associates of Libby and of his boss, now threatened by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, are veterans of that Reagan culture and hardened survivors of the crisis that ultimately threatened several of them with legal sanction and lengthy terms in prison. That crisis was the Iran-contra Affair, which burst upon the nation on Oct. 6, 1986, the day Eugene Hasenfus successfully parachuted from a CIA-piloted plane, illegally shuttling arms to the Contras.

Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a former U.S. prosecutor and judge from Oklahoma City, a lifelong Republican, began his investigation. In the probe that stretched through the rest of Reagan-time and the entire presidency of G.H.W. Bush, Walsh made his most effective headway by bringing charges for lying to Congress. This is how he nailed Elliott Abrams, Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, Alan Fiers, Clair George and Robert McFarlane. They all either pleaded guilty to what Libby was just indicted for, obstruction of justice and making false statements, were convicted of the same or, in the cases of Weinberger and Clarridge, were awaiting trial.

As Walsh plowed forward, those trying to protect Reagan and Bush included Stephen Hadley, a longtime Cheney sidekick now possibly in Fitzgerald's line of fire as the current president's national security advisor. In the Iran-Contra era, Hadley was counsel to the Special Review Board, known as the Tower Commission, established by President Reagan to inquire into U.S. arms sales to Iran, which headed off any unwelcome focus on Reagan or Bush's complicity in the scandal. Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Richard Cheney was the ranking Republican on a House committee also investigating Iran-Contra. He played a major role in stopping the probe from staining Bush or Reagan. (Libby himself had been working in the Pentagon from 1982-85 as director of Special Projects.)

By the fall of 1992, Walsh was finally closing in on Bush for his role in Contra-gate as Reagan's vice president. Days before the 1992 election, Walsh reindicted Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's defense secretary, for lying to Congress. The trial was scheduled for January 1993. Walsh was expected to grill Weinberger about notes that implicated Bush. In the line of fire here, too, was Colin Powell, who had been Weinberger's assistant in the crucial year of 1985. Walsh was also planning to question Bush on his failure to turn over a diary he'd kept in the mid-1980s. We could have seen a former president indicted for obstruction of justice and making false statements.

The press was mostly against Walsh. There were plenty of nasty articles about the cost and duration of his probe. Bush felt politically safe covering his a-- and that of his co-conspirators by issuing pardons, which he duly did, on Christmas Eve 1992. Off Walsh's hook slipped Weinberger, Abrams, Clarridge, St. George, Fiers, and McFarlane. Walsh said furiously that "the Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed."

Will history come close to repeating itself? John Dean, White House counsel in Nixon time and knowledgeable about executive cover-ups, argues that Fitzgerald has Cheney in his sights, and may be planning to charging him under the Espionage Act for revealing Valerie Plame's name. Cheney's survival depends on Libby keeping his mouth shut, and of taking the fall until Christmas Eve, 2008, when Bush Jr. issues the necessary pardon or pardons.

Already in the wake of Libby's indictment the air has been thick with talk of pardons, as though it's now become a predictable ritual for incumbent presidents to clear their subordinates of indictments or convictions for crimes committed during government service. Fitzgerald should say that anyone seriously urging pardons may risk indictment for conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Such pardons go hand in hand with the lying that Fitzgerald denounced. If officials violating the law and lying about it know with certainty that they are going to escape legal sanction, then we no longer have a government. We have a sequence of criminal conspiracies. There have been scandalous pardons down the decades, but the Reagan years raised the bar. It should become a major political issue.

A model here could be the neo-con martyr, Jonathan Pollard, sentenced to life in 1987 for spying for Israel. Bush Sr. and Clinton were under huge pressure to pardon him but declined to buckle because the Armed Services simply said no, we won't stand for it. To the prospect of any pardon for Libby and others the popular message should be the same. Otherwise Fitzgerald will be wasting his time and the people's money. Judy Miller's lawyers cut a deal with The New York Times, and now she is set for freelancing and a memoir on her years at The New York Times and her days in prison. I saw her on "Larry King," and she did well, declining all opportunities to kick sand in Maureen Dowd's face. It was the right choice. I have to speak in a whisper here because my coeditor is a Dowd fan, whereas I've always thought there's something tinny about Dowd's columns.

In retrospect, the Beat Up on Judy Day at The New York Times when Dowd's nasty column followed on the heels of Keller's "internal memo" looks like a carefully calculated one-two. At the time I wrote here that Keller's memo was disgusting, and now he's confirmed my initial judgment, apologizing for having insinuated in his cowardly memo that Miller and Libby were "entangled" in all the paroxysms that that word implies, also that she had "misled" her editor, Philip Taubman. Keller now concedes that Taubman had never complained of being misled by Miller.

I hold no brief for Miller, who wrote terrible stories for many years, but the people at The New York Times who should get the axe are publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, and Executive Editor Bill Keller. They've made a terrible hash of things, and the Board should make them walk the plank.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.