- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2006

In 43 years of reporting in this town, I have never seen a more bizarre, silly, overblown and wasteful affair than the investigation of the leak that identified one-time CIA covert operative Valerie Plame. At times, the noise has been so loud one would think her identification had severely compromised national security and those involved in the revelation were guilty of nothing less than treason.

In reality, the disclosure didn’t even violate the law passed originally to prevent the outing of covert intelligence operatives. Furthermore, we now believe the FBI had identified the source of the leak, apparently by the source’s own admission, even before appointment of a special prosecutor who quickly determined the statute had not been breached, much to the unhappiness of Democrats, who had pressed for his appointment.

So why was the investigation not halted there, saving millions of taxpayer dollars in actual expenses and much more in the man-hours spent by top-ranking government officials defending themselves and their reputations?

Apparently because the CIA pressed the matter as a diversion from the mounting furor over its own inadequacies in counterintelligence, ranging from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to its assessment of Iraq’s nuclear and biochemical capabilities. The agency clearly was under siege and had sent Mrs. Plame’s husband, a self-promoting former minor ambassador, Joseph Wilson, off to Africa to discover whether British reports of Iraqi nuclear activities there were accurate. Mr. Wilson came back convinced they weren’t, and immediately began trumpeting his conclusions to the embarrassment of the White House.

The disclosure of Mrs. Plame’s name by a syndicated columnist apparently stemmed from an offhand, innocent remark by then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was unaware Mrs. Plame had once been undercover. He reportedly had read a memo on Mrs. Plame’s involvement in the decision to tap Mr. Wilson for the African assignment, and at the end of a conversation with columnist Robert Novak mentioned she was a CIA employee. Mr. Novak double-checked it with the White House’s Karl Rove — and the fat, as they say, was in the fire.

Having decided quickly no law had been violated, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago immediately turned his sights on a dozen White House sources he suspected had not been truthful in their interviews with the FBI and later with the grand jury. This led him to indict “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide, for perjury and obstruction of justice for testifying he first heard the information about Mrs. Plame from a television correspondent who denied that was the case. Mr. Fitzgerald saw this as a deliberate lie to protect Mr. Cheney and others in the White House.

Huzza. Mr. Fitzgerald had nabbed a master criminal, justifying all his time and taxpayer money. The Republic has been saved. Mrs. Plame and Mr. Wilson are Inside the Beltway celebrities and Mr. Libby, who we now know was not the original source by a long shot, stands in danger of being clapped in irons and sent to the slammer. One could only hope that if that occurs President Bush will do the right thing and pardon him.

In this farce, the press’ right to protect the identity of sources has been severely undercut; one reporter spent time in jail for a story she never wrote and then had her career derailed. Other journalists find themselves having to testify against those who provided them with information, jeopardizing their watchdog mission.

The fact Mr. Armitage admitted to the FBI he had been the source of Mr. Novak’s column should have ended the entire business. There was no need for a special counsel. The regular prosecutor would have done just as well. Was the White House incensed enough to try to use that leak to disparage Mr. Wilson’s conclusions that Iraq was not trying to buy “yellow cake” uranium from Africa? Of course it was. But so what? That is the way the game is and always has been played in this town. While it isn’t terribly nice at times, it is the normal course of politics.

Meanwhile, because common sense seems not to be one of this prosecutor’s strong suits, we most likely will continue to suffer through a spectacle that is far worse in its potential results and future implications than the original leak ever was.

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

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