The flameout of the Plame game

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The expectation on the left that the Valerie Plame affair would blossom into another Watergate, bringing down a second Republican presidency, has fizzled.

Liberals expected that convictions of one or more persons in the Bush administration for leaking or confirming to columnist Robert Novak that Mrs. Plame, the wife of Bush critic Joseph C. Wilson IV, was an undercover CIA operative. Echoing Mr. Wilson’s claims, prominent liberals and leftists, most of them in the press, accused the White House of orchestrating a smear, and sought to drive Karl Rove either out of office or into prison, or both.

Three years on, none of that has happened, and the “scandal” is played out.

Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, urged on by the pundits and the mainstream press, delved into the city’s culture of reporters and their confidential sources. He issued subpoenas for all types of e-mails and documents to find out which Bush administration officials were talking to which reporters. He threatened reporters with jail — and imprisoned one of them — which may have set a precedent for future prosecutors to compel reporters to disclose their confidential sources.

But in the end, the exhaustive investigation produced no criminal charges against any official for leaking Mrs. Plame’s name in violation of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Moreover, it has recently emerged that the official who first revealed her name to Mr. Novak, for a July 2003 column, was not a White House official, but Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state to Colin L. Powell.

Rather than being part of a smear, Mr. Armitage mentioned her name, in response to a Novak question, as the person who got her husband sent to Niger on a 2002 CIA mission on reports of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq trying to acquire uranium. Mr. Armitage, now in private business, had never publicly acknowledged his role in the previous three years.

Mr. Novak recently wrote, “After the federal investigation was announced, he told me through a third party that the disclosure was inadvertent on his part.”

Hopes shattered

David Corn, the Washington correspondent for the left-wing Nation magazine, was one of the first columnists to suggest that the Plame matter was a scandal, orchestrated to punish critics of the Iraq war.

“Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a U.S. intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security — and break the law — in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?” Mr. Corn asked in the Nation two days after the Novak column appeared. “It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Bob Novak can be trusted.”

Last week, Mr. Corn, co-author of a new book that revealed Mr. Armitage as Mr. Novak’s original source, took a different view, acknowledging Mr. Armitage’s reputation as an “inveterate gossip” rather than a partisan hit man.

“The outing of Armitage does change the contours of the leak case,” he wrote in the Nation. “The initial leaker was not plotting vengeance. He and Powell had not been gung-ho supporters of the war. Yet Bush backers cannot claim the leak was merely an innocent slip. Rove confirmed the classified information to Novak and then leaked it himself as part of an effort to undermine a White House critic.”

Internet bloggers wrote hopefully of many indictments. One blogger even reported that Mr. Rove had been indicted, which he had not. Tom Matzzie, Washington director of the leftist MoveOn.org wrote in July 2005, “This conspiracy clearly reaches into the highest levels of our government. This could be among the worst presidential scandals in our history. … Again, we call on the president to keep his promise and fire Karl Rove. How long will the cover-up continue?”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean likened the scandal to Watergate, which brought down President Richard Nixon.

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