By James B. Stewart, Penguin Press, New York, N.Y. 472 pages, $29.95

In 1808, Sir Walter Scott in “Marmion, Canto VI” (it wasn’t William Shakespeare as most have believed) authored “Oh what tangled webs we weave, When first we practise to deceive.” When he did, he probably didn’t realize that one day 20th Century philistines would tersely say more crudely in its stead that, “the cover up is worse than the crime.” Nor would Sir Walter have known that James B. Stewart, the fine writer and now columnist for The New York Times, has brilliantly used those “Tangled Webs” as a title for his recent book, subtitled, and critical to this review—”How False Statements Are Undermining America.”

Tangled Webs is an exquisitely written book that strings together four extraordinary cases from the past decade where notorious criminal defendants, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Barry Bonds and Bernard Madoff, were convicted for their lies that furthered, at least for a while, criminal schemes in which they were implicated.

Martha Stewart, for insider trading (for which she herself was not prosecuted); Libby, for the public exposure of a CIA operative (for which neither he nor anyone was prosecuted); Bonds for benefitting from steroid distribution (for which he was never prosecuted); and Madoff for his cataclysmic ponzi scheme (for which he received 150 years in prison). Stewart links these four iconic cases together to make the case that America is drowning in a sea of lies, as proven by these four prosecutions.

Is his ultimate conclusion right? While, indeed, the cover up is often worse than the crime, author Stewart protests that the pattern of perjuries and false statements is what ails America. The problem is this: the Martha Stewart case wasn’t really about her lies. It was about conduct that, apparently in Martha’s view, required her to lie ­—her perception that Sam Waksal, ImClone’s chief, had inside information that led him to sell his family’s ImClone (cancer drug) stock. And because their stockbroker-in-common told her about Waksal’s sales, she sold.

Same with Scooter Libby. Whatever reason motivated him (probably loyalty to Vice President Cheney as the author tells us), Libby chose to lie to the grand jury impaneled by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Still, as is clear from Stewart’s reportage, the real wrongdoing in the Libby case wasn’t Libby’s lies. Rather, whether or not criminal under the arcane statutes implicated, it was the odious campaign by a number of Bush appointees to out Valarie Plame as a CIA operative, in retaliation for her husband having written an op-ed piece in the New York Times (“What I Didn’t Find in Africa”), critical of the Administration’s public pronouncements on WMDs in Iraq.

With Barry Bonds, if he deliberately lied to the grand jury he committed felonies (the case still pends), but the real crime wasn’t the likely false story that baseball superstar Bonds told the grand jury. It was that Bonds was sold the “clear” and the “cream” (code names for steroids), to enhance his athletic performance and achieve home run records that would otherwise elude him. As a practical matter (if not a legal certainty), all one really needs to do to know that Bonds lied is to look side-by-side at photos of Bonds, before and after he was allegedly chemically enhanced by doping. (One wouldn’t need the testimony of the estranged girlfriend of Bonds, that Stewart describes for his readers, to know what was what with him).

If one reads the chapters about each of these three figures, one sees in the pristine black and white in which Stewart paints his pictures, how and why these offenses were committed and how the truth, to coin a tired but useful phrase, would have set each of them free. Imagine, Martha Stewart, Libby and Bonds never having been forced to suffer the humiliation and consequence of public trials, and looming jail sentences (excerpt for Martha Stewart who actually served one), had they simply spoken the truth (or maybe better yet in the cases of Martha Stewart and Libby, not having spoken at all. Bonds had no choice, he had a witness compulsion order).

Madoff stands on different footing. His capacity to keep the money coming in to perpetuate his uniquely horrendous scheme depended on his lies to investors calculated to continue the fraud. Whatever his technical criminal offenses were­—e.g., larceny, fraud or false statements­—his fraud was based directly on his pattern of lies that spanned over 20 years. Stewart gives us great detail on how those lies, which the regulators didn’t believe, held the day time after time.

But Madoff is the only one of author Stewart’s four subjects who relied on lies to commit their crimes. If Martha Stewart sold her ImClone stock believing that Waksal received an inside scoop and was therefore herself culpable as an inside trader, she needed no lie to sell her stock; likewise if Libby wanted to help destroy Plame’s husband Joe Wilson for having exposed the Administration over the Iraq invasion, lies by him were unnecessary; and if Bonds wanted Samsonesque power at the plate, he didn’t need to mislead anyone either.

It is true, as author Stewart tells us: our justice system has an institutional right to gain the truth. And it is sad, but true that, as an unnamed prosecutor source told Stewart: every day he goes to work fully expecting to be lied to. It is also true that each of Stewart’s four members of the apocalypse— Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Barry Bonds and Bernie Madoff—were motivated to lie through their teeth for their own, individual reasons. Still, their lies, excepting Madoff’s, were not the pivotal aspects of the respective wrongdoings that precipitated their lies.

Though false statements per se may not be how three of author Stewart’s examples undermined America, his readers, especially those who haven’t closely followed these major criminal scandals, will nonetheless be greatly enriched by what he fastidiously reports to us about them as often the case, through the eyes of participants with something to get off their chests. (It will be interesting to speculate as to his sources. I’ve got a few ideas of my own.)

One can see from Stewart’s careful reportage that their lies, the cornerstone of his book, which indeed did bring each of them down in court, are differently motivated. Martha Stewart, a headstrong businesswoman, didn’t want the public to think that she had something to hide—as she saw it, her business required the appearance of transparency. Libby, apparently a likeable sort whose decency, incidentally, moved his trial lawyer, Ted Wells of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, to tears when completing his summation, was motivated by loyalty to the Bush Administration (and in particular to Mr. Cheney). Bonds, noted for arrogance and aloofness, wanted to ensure that his place in the Hall of Fame would be secure when his home run days were over. And Madoff…well, you know.

The real truth is this: only Madoff would likely have been prosecuted if he told the truth. As Stewart tells us, Martha Stewart wouldn’t have been prosecuted for insider trading (or anything, probably) had she been truthful; Libby wouldn’t have been prosecuted, as no one was, including an admitted leaker, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, as it is likely that no substantive crime was committed in the public outing of Ms. Plame; and Bonds had court-ordered immunity and only needed to tell the truth to avoid prosecution.

Stewart argues that our society is awash in lies, and such prosecutions are critical. But did the lies by these three—put aside Madoff who clearly victimized, maybe decimated, countless individuals and institutions—really effect society badly? Yes, Martha Stewart did go to jail for 5 months, Libby faced 3 years in jail (until Mr. Bush granted him clemency), and Bonds still faces possible jail when he is sentenced. These sentences for lies may help discourage the next guy who might otherwise go astray.

As this reviewer sees it though, stopping the substantive wrongdoing exemplified by these cases is more important. The “Tangled Webs” of which Stewart writes had to be written about, and no one writes about them better than Stewart.

But when you do read his book, and I urge you to, check his conclusion…and see if I’m lying.

Joel Cohen, a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, writes a column on ethics and criminal practice for the New York Law Journal.