Libby let off? Not a surprise...

Raffaello Pantucci says the Libby commutation is more of the same from a hypocritical administration

So, apparently, it pays to be pals with the President of the United States of America. Well, duh. “Scooter” Libby was never going to go to jail. Anyone who has been paying attention to the Bush Administration’s actions should know this.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be indignant about the fact that the President has chosen to trump the American legal system. It's just astonishing that someone who was as expedient to sign away lives towards execution as Governor of Texas, is equally prepared as President to forego the law and spare Libby. So, it is scandalous but not altogether surprising. Presidents have this prerogative after all. And this is a President who has made it repeatedly clear that he champions loyalty amongst staff, so he was hardly going to let Lewis get scooted off to prison.

However, it does slightly distract from what we should be focusing on, and what was really on trial: the extraordinary expansion of executive power in the United States. The “co-Presidents” Bush and Cheney have assiduously attempted to overturn all the checks and balances carefully enshrined in the American body politic by the Constitution, all in the name of national security.

Until the 2006 mid-term elections this was really not a problem. The invocation of the “war on terror” after 9/11 put the nation on a permanent war footing meaning that any presidential decision was to further that goal and therefore incontestable. Any attempt to contradict such edicts would expose the complainant to accusations of disloyalty and, anyway, there was absolutely no political support for such contradiction. They had both the Senate and the House and a proven track record in winning elections.

By mid-2006 the American public finally spoke with their feet. The Republican drubbing in the polls was followed by Donald Rumsfeld’s jettisoning overboard to keep an angry public at bay: proof at last that the American system of checks and balances was still vibrant and well.

This was not a lesson that filtered into the Vice President’s office. Temperamentally happier operating in the shadows of power, Dick Cheney found himself under fire from all sides getting dragged kicking and screaming into the light. His perennial optimism on Iraq was daily contradicted by news reports, and the executive clout he wielded with total impunity increasingly came under fire as a reinvigorated Congress fought back.

Subpoenas were issued left and right as the newly minted Democratic Congress dug in and started to haul out junior members of the administration to hearings accounting for their administration’s actions. The President used executive privilege to keep himself out of the firing line, and attempts to extract information from the Vice President’s office were met with a decision to close down the unit pursuing the information. Even more entertaining than this, however, was the impressively Machiavellian contortion from the Veep’s office that since he is simultaneously part of executive branch (as Vice President) and part of the legislative branch (the Vice President is also President of the Senate) he is therefore answerable to laws of neither.

This leaves the Democrats with nowhere else to go but to pursue those lower down the ladder who ultimately cannot call upon this privilege. And left out there on a limb was “Scooter” Libby.

The entire situation has placed the President in quite a quandary. On the one hand, he could not fully pardon him, since this might incense the Democrats to really go after him (already some are talking of using this as grounds for impeachment), and yet to let him go to jail would doom him amongst Conservatives (who have raised substantial amounts of money and filled reams of column inches arguing their man’s case).

So the lame duck waddled down this middle path of commutation, excusing the jail time, but leaving the $250,000 fine and two and a half year probation in place. This is just about all the shade left under those clipped wings.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of Outreach at the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy

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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.

Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.

Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.

Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.

Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”

Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.

In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.