Tuesday, September 30, 2003

“Neo-conservatives and religious conservatives have hijacked this administration, and I consider myself on a personal mission to destroy both.” Those are the words of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who will certainly be a household name for weeks to come.

Chances are very good that we will never know who from the White House leaked the information about Mr. Wilson and his wife to members of the press. For one thing, that’s the nature of leak investigations. Journalists don’t reveal their sources, and sources have a way of disappearing into the mahogany paneling in the halls of power here in Washington. Most of such investigations end inconclusively.

What we do know is that damage is being done to the reputation of the Bush White House by the controversy over the leak. President Bush came into office with the promise to bring honor and integrity to the office of the presidency after the Clinton impeachment trial, and here we are now with calls for independent prosecutors coming fast and furious from Democrats, who hated the idea when Bill Clinton was the target.

In a politically sound move, and as soon as the CIA reported that “two senior administration officials” had given the name of an agent (i.e. Mr. Wilson’s wife) to journalists, the White House lost no time facilitating the leak investigation. It was referred to the Justice Department on Sept. 27. So far, we have seen none of the Clinton-era, Janet Reno-style stone-walling in evidence.

Still, looking at the main players in this case and their statements, there is a sliding scale of truth, which, in the end, will prevent us from knowing what actually happened. Statements shift from moment to moment, and each has his interests to protect. Administration officials obviously do. So do members of the media, especially, columnist Robert Novak, whose article on July 14 caused the initial furor.

Take Mr. Wilson himself, who has been much in evidence on national television screens since this weekend. Could he have an agenda beyond demanding justice?

Well, what would you think of someone who tells people around Washington — as Mr. Wilson did last week — “Neo-conservatives and religious conservatives have hijacked this administration, and I consider myself on a personal mission to destroy both.”

That sounds pretty ugly, doesn’t it? It is in fact quite a bit at odds with the reasonable image that Mr. Wilson has been projecting on our television screens in recent days. Mr. Wilson also saw fit back in August to accuse presidential adviser Karl Rove of having orchestrated the White House leak. He swore he would see Mr. Rove led out of there “in handcuffs.” Now, he says he got carried away by passion and is in possession of no evidence that Mr. Rove was involved.

That Mr. Wilson holds such views in no way excuses the injustice that was done him and his wife Valerie Plame, when a leak to the media identified her as a CIA officer involved in analysis of information regarding weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Wilson — who had been sent to the African country of Niger by the CIA to investigate claims that uranium “yellowcake” had been sold to Iraqi agents — emerged last summer as a severe critic of the Bush administration. He accused the White House of “misrepresenting facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war.”

It is for this criticism that Mr. Wilson claims he and his family are being punished. Which may well be true. That would be both illegal and unethical. As Mr. Wilson stated at the time, “Whoever leaked that comment about my wife did it very clearly to smear my good name and my wife’s good name.” He has not himself, however, had any compunction about smearing Mr. Rove’s good name without any evidence.

Now, Mr. Bush might well be able to get this whole affair behind him by finding a scapegoat to fire — had it not been that revealing the identity of a CIA officer is a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A simple dismissal would not put an end to the matter.

So, here is another suggestion to get to the bottom of this mess before our policy in Iraq becomes a victim of Washington’s politics of long knives. Let’s polygraph the whole bunch —White House officials, media types, CIA officials. At the CIA, they at least allow agents who have been accused an “exculpatory polygraph test.” In the Washington political jungle, that may be the only way of getting at the facts.

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