- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

Is there any active reporter inside the Beltway who didn’t know former Ambassador Joe Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA? It appears to have been the worst-kept secret in Washington.

Suddenly we discover that The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward was informed about Valerie Plame’s position a full month before it was disclosed by columnist Robert Novak.

Unlike several of the dramatis personae in this growing farce about leaks, Mr. Woodward has withheld from the public the identity of his informant — Karl Rove immediately denied it was he, leading to speculation the name might be revealed in a book at a later date, a sort of Deep Throat II.

Most importantly, Mr. Woodward says he didn’t get the information from Vice President Dick Cheney’s man, Scooter Libby, charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald and the FBI that he first heard of Mrs. Plame from NBC’s Tim Russert.

Mr. Woodward, who covered Watergate for The Post, disclosed it all to Mr. Fitzgerald and it now seems the investigator himself misspoke when he told the nation on television that Mr. Libby was the first person to leak on Mrs. Plame. Mr. Woodward apparently didn’t inform his editor about his role in the case — a serious oversight in good investigative reporting — until a month ago, though he claimed he did tell longtime Post colleague Walter Pincus almost immediately what he had learned about Mrs. Plame.

But hold on. According to The Post, Mr. Pincus says he doesn’t remember any such conversation and that he certainly would have inasmuch as he was covering the CIA and the repercussions of Mr. Wilson’s report there was no evidence, contrary to the claims of the Bush administration, Saddam Hussein was trying to buy nuclear material from Africa.

Confused? Well, if you can follow the Byzantine path through this CIA-generated travesty, you probably could write a spy novel rivaling anything by John le Carre. Just remember: One person is charged in this cast of thousands — Mr. Libby. He is not accused of breaking the little-used federal law against deliberately revealing the name of a covert intelligence agent, — which, of course, was the premise of the investigation.

But almost from the beginning, Mr. Fitzgerald knew he couldn’t prove a violation of the law. The counts filed against Mr. Libby involve supposed conflicts in his testimony to a grand jury about who told what to whom when.

The disclosure of Mrs. Plame’s post and her role in recommending her husband to travel to Africa to find out the truth about Iraq’s capabilities, as far as anyone can tell, did not adversely affect anything. There was no damage to the CIA, her career or the nation. CIA officials just got sore because they were nailed for lousy work. Spies don’t like leaks unless they are the leakers, a way of life in the cloak-and-dagger business.

Mr. Woodward’s revelation of his role casts a new light on this entire matter and strains Mr. Fitzgerald’s case even further by creating a major hole in his claim Mr. Libby deliberately tried to obstruct justice. Mr. Libby says he is only guilty of faulty recollection about where he originally heard of Mrs. Plame.

Further confusing the issue is Mr. Pincus’ challenge to Mr. Woodward’s claim of having informed him. Who told Mr. Woodward? Could it be one of his many CIA sources? That would really put some fat in the fire.

If the Libby case got to trial, the nation will be treated to the spectacle of a parade of reporters testifying against their source. That is a First Amendment nightmare, not to mention how it would chill journalistic access to government’s inner workings. If sources can’t be sure of protection, they will keep information to themselves, and the public will be worse off.

Having now built a minor spark into a major firestorm in an area where there normally is little productivity — the investigation of leaks — the enboldened CIA wants to pursue the sources of the reporter who revealed the presence in Eastern Europe of clandestine CIA prisons. A preliminary inquiry has begun.

The CIA objective seems to be a full-blown Justice Department investigation and ultimately another special counsel, who can do more damage to a free press.

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

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