Tuesday, September 5, 2006

The expectation on the left that the Valerie Plame affair would blossom into another Watergate, bringing down a second Republican presidency, has fizzled.

Liberals expected that convictions of one or more persons in the Bush administration for leaking or confirming to columnist Robert Novak that Mrs. Plame, the wife of Bush critic Joseph C. Wilson IV, was an undercover CIA operative. Echoing Mr. Wilson’s claims, prominent liberals and leftists, most of them in the press, accused the White House of orchestrating a smear, and sought to drive Karl Rove either out of office or into prison, or both.

Three years on, none of that has happened, and the “scandal” is played out.

Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, urged on by the pundits and the mainstream press, delved into the city’s culture of reporters and their confidential sources. He issued subpoenas for all types of e-mails and documents to find out which Bush administration officials were talking to which reporters. He threatened reporters with jail — and imprisoned one of them — which may have set a precedent for future prosecutors to compel reporters to disclose their confidential sources.

But in the end, the exhaustive investigation produced no criminal charges against any official for leaking Mrs. Plame’s name in violation of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Moreover, it has recently emerged that the official who first revealed her name to Mr. Novak, for a July 2003 column, was not a White House official, but Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state to Colin L. Powell.

Rather than being part of a smear, Mr. Armitage mentioned her name, in response to a Novak question, as the person who got her husband sent to Niger on a 2002 CIA mission on reports of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq trying to acquire uranium. Mr. Armitage, now in private business, had never publicly acknowledged his role in the previous three years.

Mr. Novak recently wrote, “After the federal investigation was announced, he told me through a third party that the disclosure was inadvertent on his part.”

Hopes shattered

David Corn, the Washington correspondent for the left-wing Nation magazine, was one of the first columnists to suggest that the Plame matter was a scandal, orchestrated to punish critics of the Iraq war.

“Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a U.S. intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security — and break the law — in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?” Mr. Corn asked in the Nation two days after the Novak column appeared. “It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Bob Novak can be trusted.”

Last week, Mr. Corn, co-author of a new book that revealed Mr. Armitage as Mr. Novak’s original source, took a different view, acknowledging Mr. Armitage’s reputation as an “inveterate gossip” rather than a partisan hit man.

“The outing of Armitage does change the contours of the leak case,” he wrote in the Nation. “The initial leaker was not plotting vengeance. He and Powell had not been gung-ho supporters of the war. Yet Bush backers cannot claim the leak was merely an innocent slip. Rove confirmed the classified information to Novak and then leaked it himself as part of an effort to undermine a White House critic.”

Internet bloggers wrote hopefully of many indictments. One blogger even reported that Mr. Rove had been indicted, which he had not. Tom Matzzie, Washington director of the leftist MoveOn.org wrote in July 2005, “This conspiracy clearly reaches into the highest levels of our government. This could be among the worst presidential scandals in our history. … Again, we call on the president to keep his promise and fire Karl Rove. How long will the cover-up continue?”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean likened the scandal to Watergate, which brought down President Richard Nixon.

“This is like Watergate,” he said in November. The deed was done and then the cover-up came with [former vice-presidential aide I. Lewis] “Scooter” Libby being charged with the cover-up because that’s an easier charge to prove, but the truth is, had the president not misled the American people about the war, this wouldn’t have happened. They got in trouble when they tried to discredit people telling the truth like Joe Wilson.”

Stacie Paxton, a spokesman for the committee, argues now that the Armitage disclosure does not vindicate the White House of misconduct. “Nothing changes the fact that the White House had an Iraq working group whose sole purpose was to sell the war, that Karl Rove leaked the name of a covert secret CIA agent in a time of war and still has a security clearance. Nor does it change the fact that George Bush said he would fire anyone who would release classified information, and he did nothing.”

The motive

Another facet of the Plame affair also has become clearer: the motive. Nearly all the accounts in the mainstream press quoted Mr. Wilson as saying the leak was an attempt to punish him and his wife. Few other explanations were offered.

Why were Mr. Armitage, Mr. Rove and others talking about Mrs. Plame? Rather than a smear, the mentioning of Mrs. Plame’s name now appears to have been an attempt to set the record straight on this issue: how it came about that Mr. Wilson, a Bush critic who later joined Sen. John Kerry’s campaign and who was not a trained intelligence investigator, was chosen by the CIA to travel to Niger to investigate an important question for the administration as it planned to go to war in Iraq.

The question: Did Baghdad approach Niger about buying yellowcake, a refined uranium that can be further processed into weapons-grade material?

Mr. Wilson said he found no such evidence and went public with his findings in summer 2003. In an op-ed essay in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, he disclosed his CIA mission and said he found no evidence of a deal.

To some, the column left the impression that he was on a mission for the vice president. His aim was to chastise the president for citing a British intelligence report in his January 2003 State of the Union address about a possible Niger-Iraq connection.

He wrote, “In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had questions about a particular intelligence report. … The agency official asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president’s office.”

Mr. Wilson had first revealed his trip to Niger to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Mr. Kristof wrote a May 6, 2003, column that said, “I’m told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president’s office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger.”

Mr. Wilson’s op-ed prompted questions from reporters, including Mr. Novak, on why Mr. Wilson had been sent. Mr. Novak wrote a July 14, 2003, column that reported that Mrs. Plame was instrumental in obtaining the assignment for her husband.

Actually, neither the White House nor the office of CIA Director George J. Tenet knew of the trip. When the White House, seeking to contain damage, inquired how Mr. Wilson was chosen for the assignment, the CIA said that Mrs. Plame, who worked in a counterproliferation office, had recommended him. This version of how he got the job was later confirmed in 2004 in a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Breaking his silence in July, Mr. Novak told Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume that he had an hourlong interview with his initial source, now known to be Mr. Armitage, and asked questions about the Niger mission.

Mr. Novak told Mr. Hume, “In the course of that interview, I said, ‘Why would they send Joe Wilson to Niger? Why would the CIA send him there? He’s not a CIA agent. He is not anybody who knows Niger that well; he served there a long time ago.’ He said his wife worked in the Office of Nuclear Proliferation at the CIA, and she suggested he go.”

Mr. Novak said he then called Mr. Rove to talk about the Niger trip. Mr. Novak, not Mr. Rove, brought up the issue of his wife getting him the trip.

“I called him about the mission to Niger, but in the course of asking about the mission to Niger, I said, ‘I understand that his wife works at the CIA and she initiated the mission,’” Mr. Novak told Fox News. Mr. Rove answered, “You know that, too?” Mr. Novak said Mr. Rove never belittled or criticized Mr. Wilson.

Other reporters

Another reporter on the case was Matthew Cooper, then of Time magazine. Mr. Cooper, in a dispatch for Time in July 2005 recounting his grand jury testimony (which is perfectly legal), said that after Mr. Wilson’s op-ed appeared in the New York Times, but before Mr. Novak’s column, he telephoned Mr. Rove and asked him about the Niger trip.

He said Mr. Rove discounted the importance of Mr. Wilson’s findings and said that his wife at the CIA, not the White House, got the assignment for him. He said Mr. Rove never mentioned her name or that she was a covert officer.

Mr. Cooper wrote that he later talked to Mr. Libby, Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff. Mr. Libby has been charged with lying to Mr. Fitzgerald’s grand jury in testimony about the leak, but not for the leak itself.

Mr. Cooper said he brought up Mr. Wilson’s wife’s role in the Niger trip and Mr. Libby replied: “Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.”

Judith Miller of the New York Times is the third reporter known to have discussed Mrs. Plame with an administration official, in this case, Mr. Libby. She initiated an interview to ask why no large stocks of weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. They had two subsequent meetings. She later wrote in the New York Times that Mr. Libby mentioned Mr. Wilson’s wife briefly, but did not think that Mr. Libby divulged the name.

Most of the discussion on Mr. Wilson centered on Mr. Libby’s criticizing his post-Niger trip report as inadequate and complaining about CIA leaks to discredit Mr. Bush. She never wrote a story.

An early newspaper story asserted that two White House officials actively contacted six Washington reporters to reveal Mrs. Plame’s identify and that she worked at the CIA. This was accepted as fact by liberal bloggers. There is no mention of these events in the Libby indictment, which summarizes the incident. But Mr. Novak, Mrs. Miller and Mr. Cooper said they initiated the contacts with administration officials — not the other way around.

Bob Woodward of The Washington Post later said he, too, heard Mrs. Plame’s name from “a person,” later reported elsewhere to be Mr. Armitage. Mr. Woodward dismissed the incident as mere gossip, not a smear.

All available evidence now suggests that the White House was blindsided by news of the Wilson trip and sought answers from the CIA on how it came to be. Several Bush officials talked of Mrs. Plame for the purpose of disabusing reporters of the idea the White House authorized Mr. Wilson to go to Niger.

Although officials should not have mentioned Mr. Wilson’s wife, since she was in the clandestine service, Mr. Fitzgerald did not find sufficient evidence that officials knowingly revealed her name to expose her position, as legal charges would require.

The Plame role

In July, on the third anniversary of the Novak column, Mr. Wilson, his wife, and attorney Christopher Wolf held a press conference to announce a civil suit against Mr. Rove, Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney.

Mr. Wilson had written a best-selling book, appeared on TV frequently and called for Mr. Rove to be driven from the White House. He and his wife, her face concealed, had posed in a provocative Vanity Fair photograph. But Mrs. Plame was now outed in full. She blamed the White House for ending her CIA career by “blowing her cover.”

“I and my former CIA colleague trusted our government to protect us as we did our jobs,” she said. “That a few reckless individuals within the current administration betrayed that trust has been a grave disappointment to every patriotic American.”

The trio took questions, none of which touched on the fact that a 2004 report cast doubt on some of Mr. Wilson’s claims.

In 2003-04, the Senate Intelligence Committee spent considerable time investigating why the CIA got the intelligence wrong on Iraq. As part of that mandate, staffers delved into the Niger mission.

First, it reported that, despite Mr. Wilson’s denials, he did get the Niger assignment because of his wife. When her unit, the Counterproliferation Division, got word that Mr. Cheney wanted the yellowcake report investigated, Mrs. Plame recommended him to her boss, and she put it in writing.

The committee, which wrote a bipartisan report, turned up a memo to her superior which said, “My husband has good relations with both the [prime minister] and the former minister of mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.” The report said that the next day her unit arranged for Mr. Wilson’s trip to Niger.

She approached her husband with the remark that “there’s this crazy report” on a deal for Niger to sell uranium to Iraq. Niger had sold yellowcake to Saddam two decades ago, and some of it was still in Iraq when U.S. troops arrived in the Gulf war in 2003.

The Senate investigators reported that Mr. Wilson did, in fact, find evidence that an Iraqi overture to buy yellowcake may have occurred. To Republicans, this meant Mr. Wilson’s op-ed in the New York Times — the essay that triggered the whole affair — was inaccurate, just as Mr. Libby contended to Mrs. Miller that it was.

In an addendum to the bipartisan report, Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, wrote that “public comments from the former ambassador, such as comments that his report ‘debunked’ the Niger-Iraq uranium story, were incorrect and have led to a distortion in the press and in the public’s understanding of the facts surrounding the Niger-Iraq uranium story. The committee found that, for most analysts, the former ambassador’s report lent more credibility, not less, to the reported Niger-Iraq uranium deal.”

Wilson at fault

The Wilsons are now represented by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Melanie Sloan, executive director and a former Democratic Senate and House staffer, said in an e-mail to The Washington Times it’s wrong to infer that Mr. Wilson was sent to Niger on the suggestion of his wife. The Senate report “clearly indicates that the CIA decided to send Wilson to Niger.”

Ms. Sloan said the Armitage disclosure does not affect the Wilson lawsuit, “which is premised on the deliberate and unlawful actions of top White House officials to publicly discredit Mr. Wilson and retaliate against him by deliberately disclosing the classified identity of Ms. Wilson. Mr. Armitage’s conduct in no way alters the fact that VP Cheney, Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove were engaged in a concerted effort to violate the rights of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and they should be held accountable for their actions.”

Perhaps the biggest remaining question is why Mr. Armitage — and his boss, Mr. Powell — stayed silent about the inadvertent Armitage leak of Mrs. Plame’s name while the administration was pilloried in the press and key Bush-Cheney staffers ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills.

At the end of the affair, some liberal voices concede the fizzle. In an editorial last week, The Washington Post observed that “It now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush’s closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.”

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