- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

The CIA seems to find a way of getting even, as more than one president has discovered. It doesn’t like assuming the blame for someone else’s mistakes.

When Richard M. Nixon’s aides suggested to agency officials that the Watergate operation was really its responsibility, the CIA director at the time, Richard Helms, reportedly cracked to his assistants that “it’s either him [Nixon] or us.” Important information that undercut the White House’s defense found its way into the hands of reporters.

Now it’s George W. Bush’s turn, and he needs to move quickly to cut his losses.

Remember CIA Director George Tenet’s rather forced assumption of the blame for the president’s ill-advised State of the Union claim that Iraq was trying to buy nuclear material from Africa? The allegation was later shown to be unsupported by evidence, and it seems the CIA had expressed questions about the claim. Now there is a CIA-generated investigation of possible criminal law violations by administration officials. Are the embarrassment of the CIA and the CIA’s prompting of the investigation just a coincidence? It certainly cannot be known for sure, of course.

The Justice Department inquiry, requested recently by Mr. Tenet, is based on allegations that White House aides blew the cover of a clandestine CIA operative who happens to be the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, a major critic of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy. The name of the agent was given to a syndicated columnist who revealed it in a July piece aimed at discrediting Mr. Wilson, who challenged Mr. Bush’s claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The president has made it clear he wants a thorough investigation of the unauthorized disclosure of the operative’s identity, a violation of a seldom-prosecuted statute adopted by Congress to protect overseas intelligence operatives. It’s a good first step.

But the history of these kinds of incidents should convince Mr. Bush this has the potential for long-range political damage and that he needs to identify the source of the problem and eliminate it. The closer the person or persons may be to the Oval Office, the quicker the surgery needs to be performed.

Few presidents seem to grasp this, often placing loyalty ahead of protecting the office and then coming to regret it. Nixon is a prime example and so was Harry Truman, who too often shielded errant cronies. One who did understand not to let a potential problem fester was Dwight Eisenhower, who moved rapidly to head off an influence-peddling scandal by firing trusted aide Sherman Adams.

Democrats, as could be expected, already have started swinging, charging far too prematurely that Attorney General John Ashcroft is too close to the president to conduct a proper investigation and demanding a special counsel be appointed immediately. Some Democrats who never miss a chance to hammer the president have suggested Congress create a new independent counsel, which would be a gigantic mistake given the abuses of these offices in the past. Actually, the decision to open the investigation was made by the career head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section without consulting Mr. Ashcroft, a standard practice.

It is no secret the CIA and FBI have been smarting under a barrage of accusations about failed intelligence in both the war against terrorism and the one in Iraq. In times like these, the agency has a long tradition of wagon-circling. It often will try to turn attention away from its own shortcomings. Did some presidential aide or aides fail to understand this? If so, they must have closed their eyes to the examples of Watergate and other White House misadventures rooted in dirty tricks and vengeful motives.

The CIA’s complaint is legitimate in this case. Would it have pushed for an inquiry nearly two months after the agent’s identity was revealed had the agency been on better terms with the White House? Who knows? But the president should stop referring to what happened as a “leak.” It is far more than that. It is a criminal act that requires his immediate attention and quick resolution.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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