- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

If the special prosecutor’s probe into the identity of Bush administration officials who leaked the name of a CIA agent isn’t a witch hunt, it certainly qualifies as a colossal waste of money. And it’s likely to erode the ability of journalists to report information gleaned from whistle-blowers.

This saga began on July 6, 2003, when former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson wrote an article for the New York Times revealing he was the former envoy who went to Niger for the CIA to investigate a report Iraq had purchased uranium from that African nation. Mr. Wilson wrote he had concluded the exchange was “highly doubtful” — thus discrediting 16 words in President Bush’s State of the Union address.

Columnist Robert D. Novak then wrote a column that revealed Mr. Wilson had gone to Niger on the advice of Mr. Wilson’s CIA-operative wife, Valerie Plame.

The left howled with outrage. Leaking Mrs. Plame’s name was a felony, Bush haters panted. Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, called for an FBI probe, as the Nation’s Washington editor David Corn asked, “So where is the investigation?”

Mr. Wilson wrote this year that his wife “had nothing to do” with the Niger assignment. But a July Senate Intelligence Committee report later found she “offered up” Mr. Wilson for the Niger trip. More important, the Senate panel found Mr. Wilson did not debunk the Iraq-Niger uranium connection in debriefing on his return from Niger. The panel called into question Mr. Wilson’s claim he had noticed certain documents were forged — when he had not seen them — and noted his debriefing supported suspicions about an Iraq-Niger deal.

Thus, after Mr. Wilson and his wife posed for photos in Vanity Fair (odd behavior for a couple outraged that Mrs. Plame’s cover had been blown), and after Mr. Wilson wrote a book on the subject, “The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity,” the diplomat looked as discredited as he tried to make Mr. Bush look. (He also reinforced my personal rule to not trust any person or organization that claims possession of “truth.”)

The calls for an investigation led to one. First, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself. He assigned Patrick Fitzgerald, Chicago’s U.S. attorney, as a special prosecutor.

A year later, the investigation lives. Mr. Novak won’t say if he has been subpoenaed or has testified before a grand jury, but the New York Times said four reporters — none of whom broke the Plame story — were subpoenaed and testified before the grand jury. Since Mr. Fitzgerald compelled federal employees to sign agreements waiving any confidentiality agreements with journalists, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan has argued reporters must testify. That’s bad news for whistle-blowers.

In response to protests from attorneys for New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who had talked to confidential sources, Judge Hogan wrote, “Although Ms. Miller never wrote an article about Ambassador Joseph Wilson or his wife Valerie Plame, she contemplated writing one.”

Think about that.

Worst of all, it is not clear a crime has been committed. Former federal prosecutor Victoria Toensing said: “I don’t think they have a crime.” Federal law requires that the CIA take “affirmative measures” to hide Mrs. Plame’s identity, or there was no crime. There is reason to believe the CIA did not protect her identity or that the leakers did not know Mrs. Plame’s status, another element necessary for a conviction.

In the meantime, innocent reporters have been thrown before a grand jury, pressured to air confidential information. While lefties who hate George Bush may enjoy the prospect, the net result easily could be a drought on leaks that damage Mr. Bush as well. Again, the left is too clever for its own good.

It happens Mr. Fitzgerald’s office wouldn’t say how much the investigation has cost or why it cares to subpoena reporters who didn’t “out” Mrs. Plame. So I will leave it to you, dear reader, to try to imagine how much money and energy has been spent on this inquisition, resources that could be used to investigate terrorists, organized crime or white-collar criminals.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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