Thursday, July 14, 2005

Contemporary America has often been compared to Ancient Rome, and occasionally the comparison is apt — at least with respect to the capital. Like Rome, Washington, is filled with pillared porticos, and its ruling class is addicted to blood sports. Fortunately, this does not actually involve corpses on the colosseum floor.

Today, the sport is called scandal, and the kill is measured in terms of abrupt resignations, blighted careers and broken lives. Currently appearing in the Washington arena, of course, is President Bush’s close friend and adviser Karl Rove, and it’s time to put the lions back in their cages.

Mr. Rove is accused, openly or by innuendo, of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 (IIPA) — by allegedly revealing the name of a CIA operative, one Valerie Plame. The best information now in circulation makes clear that Mr. Rove did not violate this law — and it is difficult to see how anyone did. In fact, according to the reports that have most recently ignited the media’s interest, Mr. Rove did nothing more than warn a Time reporter not to take a story “too far,” because it was likely to fall apart upon further investigation — as, indeed, it did.

This entire affair, of course, is best understood as an artifact of the 2004 presidential election. Joseph C. Wilson IV, a Kerry supporter, had alleged that the Bush Administration ignored his efforts to discredit claims that Saddam Hussein had been seeking nuclear materials in Africa — a claim ultimately included in the President’s 2003 State of the Union address. Mr. Wilson had, in fact, traveled to Niger as a CIA consultant to investigate the matter, and publicly asserted that he had been tapped by Vice President Dick Cheney. Columnist Robert Novak then published a story stating that Wilson had actually been recommended for this “mission” by his own wife, Ms. Plame, who worked for the CIA. A Senate committee later reported that Mrs. Plame had, indeed, recommended Mr. Wilson, and that the information he developed could actually have been interpreted to support the contention that Saddam was seeking uranium ore in Niger.

At any rate, the Wilsons enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame. Among other things, this included a Vanity Fair photo spread showing the supposedly “covert” Mrs. Plame in her husband’s convertible protecting her “secret” identity with a scarf and a pair of oversized sunglasses. Unfortunately, the Wilson moment also involved the appointment of a special prosecutor to determine whether the IIPA was violated when Mrs. Plame’s CIA job was revealed. As is the way of special prosecutors, the investigation is still “ongoing.” In fact, the investigation should have taken all of an additional 15 minutes.

Congress designed the IIPA for a very important and specific purpose, and it is a very hard law to break. The IIPA was enacted to prevent and punish the purposeful identification of “covert” U.S. operatives in an effort to harm American interests. It was a direct response to the actions of former CIA officer Philip Agee. In the 1970s, Agee published the names of other CIA agents who were actually living and working covertly overseas. The IIPA was meant to protect the identities of these agents, not to shield the CIA, its employees or its employees’ spouses from public scrutiny and criticism at home.

Congress made certain of this by including a series of limiting elements in the law. In particular, it required that the United States take “affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent’s intelligence relationship to the United States” before a violation can occur. The IIPA’s legislative history makes clear that this standard cannot be met where the government simply has not, or does not, openly acknowledge its connection to a particular individual: “The fact that the United States has not publicly acknowledged or revealed the relationship does not by itself satisfy the ‘affirmative measures’ required.”

In light of this language, the true scandal here is the suggestion that a CIA analyst, whose name is identified, as Mrs. Plame’s was, in her husband’s Who’s Who in America entry, and who must enter the CIA’s headquarters compound on a daily basis to get to work, is a “covert” agent whose identity the United States “is taking affirmative measures to conceal.” The CIA’s headquarters in Northern Virginia is no secret. The complex is fully mapped, the access roads intersect public highways — one of which is a major tourist thoroughfare where the National Park Service has identified the CIA turn-off with a sign — and other entrance points are well known to local residents. Mrs. Plame’s employment at CIA headquarters was simply not the type of “covert” relationship Congress was trying to protect in the IIPA, and this investigation should be closed.

Lee A. Casey and David B. Rivkin Jr. served in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

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