Monday, July 18, 2005

Let’s make it clear at the start: Were special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation to bring evidence to light that Karl Rove or anyone else in the Bush White House had anything to do with revealing the identity of any covert CIA agent, President Bush should fire them and they should be forced to face the full consequences of the law. But nothing in the public record thus far suggests that Mr. Rove or anyone else in the administration has committed such a violation in the case of Valerie Plame. Mrs. Plame is the former CIA agent who suggested that her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, an opponent of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy, be dispatched to Africa in February 2002 to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase “yellowcake” uranium from Niger.

What is known thus far suggests that:1) Mr. Wilson has misrepresented his wife’s role in getting him the assignment and his own findings of his investigation in Niger; 2) In July 2003, when columnist Robert Novak first mentioned in passing that Mrs. Plame worked for the CIA, she was not functioning as a covert agent and her work for the CIA was common knowledge; and 3) That if there were— against the public record — a covert status to be exposed, it was possibly Mr. Wilson, with a speculative assist from David Corn, who writes for the Nation magazine.

Given what is known about Mr. Wilson and his veracity, it was almost surreal watching him interviewed on the “Today” show answering one softball question after another as he urged the president to fire Mr. Rove, and watching Mr. Wilson lionized as a purveyor of truth by Democrats like Sen. Charles Schumer in their effort to destroy the senior White House adviser. Last July, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report that calls into serious question virtually every substantive assertion Mr. Wilson made about his Niger trip. In July 2003, Mr. Wilson publicly accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence in order to create a case for war with Iraq. He claimed that his investigation 17 months earlier should have debunked the idea that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger.

Here’s the way that Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post (in a story buried inside on page A9), described the Senate Intelligence Committee report on July 10, 2004: “Wilson’s assertions — both about what he did in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information — were undermined yesterday in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report. The panel found that Wilson’s report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts. And contrary to Mr. Wilson’s assertions and even the government’s previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the intelligence that made its way into 16 fateful words in President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union speech.”

In the same story, The Post added that the committee’s report “may bolster the rationale that administration provided the information not to intentionally expose an undercover CIA employee [purportedly Mrs.Plame], but to call into question Wilson’s bona fides as an investigator into trafficking of weapons of mass destruction.” And the report “also said that Wilson provided misleading information to The Washington Post last June. He said then that he concluded the Niger intelligence was based on documents that had clearly been forged because the ‘dates were wrong and the names were wrong.’”

But Mr. Wilson’s assertions on this point made no sense, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which said in its report: “Committee staff asked how the former ambassador could have come to the conclusion that the ‘dates were wrong and the names were wrong’ when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports.” Mr. Wilson lamely replied that he may have “misspoken” to the reporter for The Post when he said that the documents were forged. He also said “he may have become confused about his own recollection after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported in March 2003 that the names and dates on the documents were not correct and may have thought he had seen the names himself.” The committee also found that, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s repeated denials, Mrs. Plame had suggested him for the Niger mission. So much for the notion that Mr. Wilson is some vaunted whistleblower that the Bush administration was seeking to smear because of his vaunted insistence on telling the “truth.”

What about the notion that, regardless of Mr. Wilson’s dubious credibility, Mr.Rove(orperhaps someone else) compromised Mrs. Plame’s identity as a covert CIA agent? Mr. Rove, to believe the critics, may have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 by revealing her identity. But the IIPA was written with a specific purpose in mind: to criminalize the behavior of someone like turncoat CIA agent Phillip Agee, who in the 1970s published the names of CIA agents working covertly overseas.

Congress made clear in the statute that this was the goal behind the IIPA, not to shield CIA employees or their spouses working in the United States (with little effort being made to conceal their identity) from all criticism of their behavior. The law requires that the CIA be attempting to keep the identity of the agent secret. But in interviews with The Washington Times, most of Mrs. Plame’s neighbors in Northwest Washington said they knew she worked for the CIA. A former supervisor, Fred Rustmann, who spent 24 years in the CIA, noted that the agency was doing little to protect her cover, and she is listed in her husband’s Who’s Who in America entry.

As this newspaper reported on July 23, 2004: “The identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame was compromised twice before her name appeared in a new column that triggered a federal illegal-disclosure investigation … Mrs. Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA officer was first disclosed to Russia in the mid-1990s by a Moscow spy … In a second compromise, officials said a more recent inadvertent disclosure resulted in references to Mrs. Plame in confidential documents sent by the CIA to the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana … Cubans read the classified material and learned the secrets contained in them, the officials said.”

Ironically, Mr. Rove says he learned of Mrs. Plame’s identity from a reporter. How did a journalist get that information? Very possibly, Mr. Wilson himself was the original source of the leak of his wife’s identity as a secret agent. The first person to speculatively write on the assertion was Mr. Corn of the Nation, who wrote two days after Mr. Novak’s original article was published that Mrs. Plame may have been a secret agent. Clifford May, writing last week in National Review Online, noted that Mr. Novak did not reveal that she was a secret agent. But Mr. Corn, who talked with Mr. Wilson, did raise the possibility of Mrs. Plame’s “undercover” status. The bottom line is that based on what is currently known about the Plame case thus far, there is absolutely no legitimate reason to believe that Mr. Rove is the original source of the leak about Mrs. Plame’s identity.

Beyond these criminal and national security issues, the White House has the separate political concern of maintaining the president’s credibility regarding his earlier statements that he would fire the leakers in the Plame matter. This will have to be addressed once the grand jury has determined all the facts.

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