- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

Could there be less to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s CIA leak investigation than anyone will admit?

From the beginning, conventional wisdom said laws against “outing” intelligence agents were broken and that White House officials, in an effort to punish former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s criticism of the intelligence used to justify the Iraq invasion, told reporters his wife worked for the CIA.

But after two years of exhaustive investigation, Mr. Fitzgerald could find no evidence of a top-level grand conspiracy “to lie” us into war. The special prosecutor’s case has come down to this: I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, allegedly lied about his recollections of a number of conversations with several reporters.

Obviously, telling the truth to the FBI and a grand jury is very important and critical to maintaining the rule of law. But some highly respected journalists who interview intelligence sources maintain there was no deliberate outing of Valerie Plame and suggest maybe this case has been blown out of proportion.

For instance: The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bob Woodward, a veteran of years of intelligence reporting and breaking stories about covert dealings, said some interesting things on CNN’s “Larry King Live” before Mr. Fitzgerald announced his indictment.

“Now there are a couple of things that I think are true,” Mr. Woodward said. “First of all, this began not as somebody launching a smear campaign, that it actually — when the story comes out, I’m quite confident we’re going to find out that it started kind of as gossip, as chatter, and that somebody learned that Joe Wilson’s wife had worked at the CIA and helped him get this job going to Niger, to see if there was an Iraq/Niger uranium deal.

“And there are a lot of innocent actions in all of this, but what has happened [is] this prosecutor … goes everywhere and asks every question and turns over rocks and rocks and rocks and so forth. And it doesn’t leak,” he continued.

In Mr. Woodward’s view, “There was no malice or criminal intent at the start of this. Some people kind of had convenient memories before the grand jury. … But I don’t see an underlying crime here.”

Mr. Fitzgerald could not find a crime, either, but he charged certain events conspired to severely damage U.S. intelligence and potentially endanger national security.

Really? Mr. Woodward does not think so, and neither do people in the CIA, which did an assessment of this. Moreover, Mr. Fitzgerald provides no evidence to buttress his claim.

“They did damage assessment with the CIA, looking at what this did, that Joe Wilson’s wife was outed. And it turned out, it was quite minimal damage,” Mr. Woodward said. “They did not have to pull anyone out[of] undercover abroad. They didn’t have to resettle anyone. There was no physical danger to anyone, and there was just some embarrassment.”

Valerie Plame never tried to hide her personal identity. Her full name is listed in “Who’s Who” in her husband’s bio. The two of them sat for a photo spread in Vanity Fair magazine in the midst of the CIA leak investigation.

Another ingredient in this saga is the federal law under which Mr. Fitzgerald launched his investigation — the Intelligence Identities Protection Act — and its legislative intent.

That law “was never intended to criminalize the mere act of disclosing a CIA agent’s name,” attorney Victoria Toensing, a national security expert who helped create the 1982 law, writes in the conservative weekly Human Events.

Indeed, the committee report accompanying the bill, which has additional explanatory language often considered by courts to discern Congress’ intent, specifically provides certain exemptions from the law, including “casual discussion, political debate, the journalistic pursuit of a story on intelligence or the disclosure of illegality or impropriety in government.”

The report’s language made clear that Congress intended to criminalize only disclosures that “clearly represent a conscious and pernicious effort to identify and expose agents with the intent to impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States.”

Clearly, Mr. Libby had no such intention and did not break any anti-espionage law. His conversations with journalists were more on the level of chatter and gossip, as Mr. Woodward said. There is no conspiracy here beyond a discouraged, frustrated prosecutor who had to come up with some charge to justify 24 months of fruitless investigation.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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