WASHINGTON – It is not always what happens here that matters as much as when it happens.

A few years ago, the indictment of the little-known-beyond-the-Beltway chief of staff to the vice president (even one called by a memorable childlike nickname) could have been dismissed as a limited action by an individual rogue.

But the criminal charges against Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, come at the worst possible time for the Bush administration, and the context is critical.

Libby’s indictment represents for the Bush administration something even more serious than the felony charge that it is. It invites a reopening, through a public trial and renewed political debate, of the most important decision of Bush’s presidency, the one to wage pre-emptive war in Iraq.

The charges came a day after the president had to jettison his hand-picked choice for the Supreme Court after she was done in by the Republican Party’s right flank. Only a month ago, his order-above-chaos management style looked fractured by the slow-footed response to Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the summer, bloated fuel prices called into question his energy policy and stoked public resentment.

In nearly five years in office, the president and his administration have been able to avoid the taint of scandal. Now criminal charges have been lobbed just a short walk from the Oval Office, and while the president was not implicated, his vice president certainly is a central character in anything that happens to Libby.

As such, what had been a crucial strength of the Bush White House – its solidarity – could now be a weakness. The administration will have to spend time deflecting questions about what Cheney, and even the president, knew about the actions of Libby and of Karl Rove. Rove, the president’s political maestro, is in a curious state, under investigation but not indictment, neutering him for the time being as a political force.

So the White House goes into a debate about the war that it cannot welcome, though it cannot avoid it. Underlying the Libby charges – and Democrats already were making this claim in a loud and public way – is the suggestion that the administration’s unofficial war council would do almost anything to advance the cause of the war, to the point of deceiving the public.

“We now know that the White House risked our national security by leaking to the press the identity of a CIA agent in an effort to discredit and silence a critic of the president’s invasion of Iraq,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “The American people know the cost of this war: more than 2,000 dead, more than 15,000 wounded U.S. soldiers, hundreds of billions of dollars already spent and no end in sight.”

In an earlier time, the Bush camp may have simply tried to crush the integrity of the critic. Such tactics have long been in the Rove political toolkit, and the Clinton administration almost perfected the craft of killing the messenger.

This time, though, the message is about national security. And the messenger, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, is an especially tough critic to tarnish, given his impressive reputation and the fact that Bush himself recently complimented him.

Friday’s indictment outlines a narrative in which Libby was deliberately trying to, at a minimum, undermine the credibility of a critic of the war, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, and pushing that message to some of Washington’s media elite. Then, the indictment charges, Libby tried to spin his way out of it when talking to FBI agents and a federal grand jury, but was caught in a web of lies.

There’s an uneasy intersection among the media and the powerful in Washington, with a strange and mostly unwritten set of rules. Libby, according to Fitzgerald’s account, tried to pass off his role to investigators as that of someone engaged in the old game of telephone, at the receiving end of a chain of gossip.

Fitzgerald isn’t familiar with the folkways of the capital and not only chose not to play along, but actually opted to seek punishment for a player he said had taken the game much too far with the stakes much too great.

In a powerful presentation, bolstered by a manner that exuded credibility, he argued Friday that lying, particularly when national security is at stake, is hardly trivial. In that sense, the grand jury that he was directing delivered an indictment of the culture of Washington as well.

Bush, in a reprise of Bill Clinton’s oft-repeated line about going back to work for the American people while others were seeking his impeachment, appeared on the White House Lawn to say that he would not be fazed by Libby’s misfortune.

“I got a job to do,” Bush said, “and so do the people who work in the White House. We got a job to protect the American people, and that’s what we’ll continue working hard to do. I look forward to working with Congress on policies to keep this economy moving. And pretty soon I’ll be naming somebody to the Supreme Court.”

But on Friday, the president’s ability to change the subject became much more difficult.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.