From a moral perspective, what exactly is so very wrong with swearing falsely under oath? That is one of the questions raised by the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, on two counts of perjury-a crime that, if he's convicted of it or pleads guilty, could contribute to his spending 30 years in prison.

Certainly, the Bible finds something very serious indeed in such an oath, assuming it was taken in God's name. We are in Ten Commandments territory here-specifically (depending on how you number the items in the Decalogue), the Third Commandment: "You shall not take the Name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain" (Exodus 20:7).

The Ten Commandments doesn't say anything so terrifying about other big-ticket sins. There is no similar warning that God will not absolve the murderer, the adulterer, or the thief. Only the Third Commandment--which refers to messing with the awesomeness of God's Name in the context of an oath--carries such a dire warning that the sin, seemingly, cannot be forgiven.

On Friday, a federal grand jury in Washington charged Libby with other, related crimes as well: one count of obstruction of justice and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. But it's the perjury charges that catch one's attention because of the curiously archaic nature of oaths--the gravity associated with them that derives from their essentially religious nature.

In a sense, Scooter Libby is being charged, before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, with a crime against God. To understand the seriousness of what Libby is accused of having done, you need to understand what a false oath is and what distinguishes it from other lies, of which the Bible takes a much different view.

Under such circumstances, the background to this story seems almost trivial, certainly underwhelming if we're talking about an unforgivable sin. The federally appointed special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who placed these charges before the grand jury, holds that Libby told a series of lies to FBI investigators and to the grand jury. The former lies (technically termed "false statements") were not under oath, while the latter ones (termed "perjury") were under oath. The alleged lies concerned conversations Libby reportedly had with journalists in which he, according to the indictment, attempted to discredit a critic of the Bush administration.

Dissing God
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  • The critic, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had publicly questioned the administration's stated reasons for going to war in Iraq. One of those reasons was that Iraq was said to be seeking to acquire uranium from an African source. Wilson wrote a July 6, 2003, New York Times opinion article about a CIA-sponsored trip he took to Niger that, he said, cast doubt on administration claims that Iraq had tried to obtain nuclear material from an African country, Niger. According to the indictment, Libby leaked to the reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA. As the media are presenting the story, this leak was somehow supposed to discredit Wilson as a Bush critic-although how exactly it would discredit him is another question that, as far as I know, nobody has yet satisfactorily answered.

    The grand jury, which has been looking into these and related matters for the past two years, has as yet found nothing indictable in Libby's supposed media leak-as it also has found nothing indictable in the actions of presidential advisor Karl Rove--only in Libby's reported lying about it.

    When Libby testified in March 2004, as the indictment relates, "the foreperson of the Grand Jury administered the oath to Libby, and Libby swore to tell the truth in the testimony he was about to give." The whole premise of such an oath is that the oath-taker is calling upon God, even if only implicitly, as a witness to the truth of his testimony. This is what an oath is, whether you mention God or not, and it is what distinguishes oath-taking from mere garden-variety promising. You are saying, in effect, "If I am lying, then God will punish me accordingly." The phrase familiar from TV and movie courtroom dramas, "So help me God," is left over from the ancient form of the oath that directly and explicitly called down God's wrath upon the false-oath taker. It means, "God help me, have mercy on me, if anything I am saying is not the truth."

    This is one reason why God will not absolve the person who lies under oath. That would undermine the entire purpose of taking an oath in the first place. If God freely forgave us for breaking the Third Commandment, then an oath would mean nothing and would carry no weight, which would make it useless in a judicial setting where a Special Counsel or other prosecutor is trying to pry the truth out of a possibly reluctant witness.

    Another reason perjury can't be forgiven, or at least not easily, is that it constitutes a denial of God and His power to take vengeance on the perjurer. The false-oath taker has, in effect, publicly affirmed that he can lie in God's name, implicitly calling divine wrath on himself, and get away with it. Now that's a dis!

    Lying has none of these terrible associations. On the contrary, the Bible itself gives evidence that God employs the occasional distortion of the truth for a good cause. When an angel promised the elderly patriarch Abraham and his aged wife Sarah a child, Isaac, Sarah laughed and said to herself, "After I have withered shall I again have delicate skin? And my husband is old!" When God repeated Sarah's comment to Abraham, He changed her words, leaving out the hurtful exclamation about Abraham's age and implying that, in Sarah's mind, it was only her age that was at issue. Thus God said to Abraham, "Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: "Shall I in truth bear a child, though I have aged?'" (Genesis 18:12-13).

    In this distortion, the Lord's purpose was to maintain peace between husband and wife. His editing of Sarah's words sets an example for us: To fudge a little to save someone else's feelings is no sin.

    This isn't of course to say that the Bible approves of all lying. Far from it. Scripture also commands, "You shall not steal; neither shall you deal falsely, nor lie one to another" (Leviticus 19:11), and "Keep yourself far from a false matter" (Exodus 23:7). Lying is, after all, a "gateway" sin, leading to other sins, in the same way that people say marijuana is a "gateway" drug leading to the abuse of other drugs. Once you have granted yourself the liberty of lying about your actions, this opens up vistas of other moral crimes you may now commit without having to worry about lying later on to save your skin if you're caught.

    But oaths are, again, another matter entirely. According to the Talmud, when God revealed the Third Commandment to Moses on Mt. Sinai, "the entire world, all of it, was shaken" by the seriousness of the instruction. "For all other transgressions mentioned in the Torah, only the transgressor is punished, but for this one, he and the entire world, all of it, are punished" (Shevuot 39a). This has something to do with the fact that when false oaths are rampant, the prosecution of criminals, in courts where oaths are administered, becomes untenable, and law and order will necessarily collapse.

    The Bible conveys a sense of the chaos that's unleashed by false oaths in the story of the Flood that, in Noah's generation, destroyed all of civilization. A process of moray decay and corruption had begun centuries before, in the time of Adam's grandson Enosh. At that time, "to call in the Name of the Lord became profaned" (Genesis 4:26)-meaning that, in oaths and everything else, using God's name (especially the ineffable Hebrew four-letter Name) became so casual and commonplace that it no longer meant much of anything. Oaths became meaningless, and court-administered justice became impossible. Before very long, the inevitable breakdown had set in, and public disorder became the rule: "Now the earth had become corrupt before God; and the earth had become filled with robbery" (Genesis 6:11). God decided to wipe out mankind in a Deluge and start over again with Noah and his family.

    Which explains why, later on in the Bible's account of human history, the Hebrew prophets railed so passionately against perjury. Zechariah spoke of the curse that "shall enter.the house of him that swears falsely by My Name.and it shall consume it with the timber thereof and the stones thereof" (5:4). On which the Talmud again notes that "a false oath consumes even things that neither fire nor water can consume" (Shevuot 39a).

    Scooter Libby, in short, was playing with fire--or rather something much more destructive than fire--if he indeed lied under oath. Whether he did is in question, of course, and will remain so until his case is resolved in one way or another.

    In the meantime, much hangs in the balance-perhaps more than meets the eye. In Noah's time, the future of humanity was in jeopardy. In our time, it is the Bush administration whose future will be gravely affected, if not necessarily consumed, if Mr. Libby pleads guilty or is convicted.

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