Opening Argument – The CIA Leak Scandal: A Gallery Of Antiheroes

National Journal

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the CIA leak investigation consuming official Washington is that — regardless of whether crimes have been committed — so many of the principal players on all sides have been guilty of petty, ignoble and (in some cases) less-than-honest conduct.

The antihero gallery includes self-styled whistle-blower Joseph Wilson; White House officials including Karl Rove and Lewis (Scooter) Libby; the leadership of The New York Times; and those Democrats who made light of Bill Clinton’s serial perjuries and now gloat at the prospect of a crippled president.

One person who may or may not emerge with a deservedly enhanced reputation is Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel running the investigation. I wonder whether he has been infected by special-prosecutor disease — that subspecies of overzealousness that seems to afflict almost all criminal investigators when they’re given complete independence and a mandate to crack one big case. But I hope that Fitzgerald will show that he knows the difference between technically prosecutable peccadilloes and real criminality.

Let’s skip over the endless argument about how badly President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and their aides hyped the deeply flawed intelligence available to them, as to Saddam Hussein’s weapons in general and as to the famous 16 words in Bush’s January 28, 2003, State of the Union address in particular: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Suffice it to say that Bush and Cheney appear to have believed that Saddam was a serious threat and had probably sought uranium from Africa (as British intelligence still claims); that they exaggerated the evidence in their effort to sell the war they wanted; and that historians will long debate how culpable those exaggerations were.

The hollowness of former diplomat Joseph Wilson’s bid for glory is more straightforward. His campaign to brand Bush’s 16 words as deliberately deceptive would have been noble had he been right. But he was wrong, and deceptive to boot.

Wilson implied in his now-famous July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed and in his appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press that his own investigative trip to Niger for the CIA, in early 2002, had given the administration proof that Iraq had not sought uranium from Africa. But his not-very-informative March 2002 report to the CIA showed nothing of the kind. And contrary to many a news article, even Wilson’s op-ed claimed only that Iraq had not purchased uranium in Niger. He did not explicitly assert that Iraq had not "sought" uranium there.

Indeed, Wilson’s March 2002 report tended to bolster intelligence reports that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger. Or so concluded the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2004. It said that Wilson had reported speaking with a former prime minister of Niger who "believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium," in part because an Iraqi delegation had suggested "expanding commercial relations." Uranium is Niger’s only major export.

Wilson, who worked in the 2004 Kerry campaign, also made what turned out to be misleading suggestions to reporters in 2003 that he knew certain documents about Niger to be forgeries (in fact, he had never seen them) and that his wife had nothing to do with the CIA’s decision to send him to Niger to investigate (in fact, she had strongly recommended him).

In short, the evidence that Wilson deliberately misled the media is considerably stronger than the evidence that Bush deliberately misled the nation with his uranium-from-Africa line.

Small wonder, then, that White House officials, including Rove and Libby, were appropriately eager to discredit Wilson, who had put a superficially appealing face on the widespread claims that Bush had "lied" about Iraq’s weapons and supposed nuclear program.

But officials went about discrediting Wilson in the manner of petty, score-settling political hacks. Instead of emphasizing that Wilson was biased and his story full of holes — as it was — the White House launched a media campaign to discredit him as a nonentity on a boondoggle arranged by his wife. This despite the fact that the decision to send Wilson had been made by other CIA officials, apparently because of his valuable experience as a former diplomat in Niger and former ambassador to neighboring Gabon with good contacts in Niger.

Did the participants in the White House media campaign know that Wilson’s wife had been an undercover operative abroad, and that disclosure of her CIA connection could jeopardize her career and perhaps even endanger the lives of her sources abroad? If so, they may have violated the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. But I find it hard to believe that Rove or Libby was that vicious. It seems more likely that they assumed that Wilson’s wife — then working as an analyst on weapons of mass destruction — had always been an analyst, and that her role could be publicized without damage.

It was at best reckless, however, to tell reporters that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA without first making sure that she had never been undercover abroad. After all, her diplomat-husband had been stationed in many foreign countries. Even columnist Robert Novak took the trouble to check with CIA spokesman Bill Harlow before writing (on July 14, 2003) that Wilson’s wife had suggested him to the CIA for the Niger trip. Harlow has reported telling Novak — in the strongest way he could without revealing classified information — that Wilson’s wife had not been the official who authorized the trip and that her name (Valerie Plame) should not be used. Novak, most unwisely, used it anyway.

News reports also suggest that the officials conducting the media campaign against Wilson may have had reason to know that his wife’s CIA employment was sensitive or classified, as indicated by a State Department memo circulated on July 7, 2003, on Air Force One, and perhaps elsewhere. This would not necessarily put them in violation of the 1982 law, which requires proof that the defendant intentionally outed a covert agent. But it would be an especially scummy violation of federal regulations and policies. And under a broad reading of a 1917 espionage statute, it could be seen by a very aggressive prosecutor as a crime.

Beyond that, it was at best dishonorable for Rove and Libby to send White House press secretary Scott McClellan out to tell the world that they’d had nothing to do with leaking Wilson’s wife’s identity. When asked on October 10, 2003, whether Rove or Libby (or a third official) had "told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA," for example, McClellan responded: "Those individuals assured me that they were not involved in this."

That, we now know, was highly misleading. When pressed by a follow-up question to specify what they were "not involved in," McClellan said: "The leaking of classified information." Whether that much was true remains to be seen.

It also remains to be seen whether Rove, Libby, or other officials have perjured themselves or obstructed justice. But this much seems clear: Rove was willing to see Time reporter Matt Cooper (almost) sent to jail to protect him, and Libby was willing to see New York Times reporter Judith Miller sit in jail for at least 85 days, until the officials were cornered by lawyers seeking direct, personal waivers of the promises of confidentiality that Cooper had made to Rove and that Miller had made to Libby. Long before then, Rove could easily have gotten Cooper off the hook, and Libby could easily have gotten Miller off the hook, by publicly stating that they had spoken to the reporters about Wilson’s wife and by urging the reporters to testify.

(Libby claims, implausibly, that he had thought Miller had gone to jail to protect someone else.)

Much ink has been spilled about the sins of The New York Times in all this. To recap just one point: After clamoring hyperbolically (as did other newspapers) for a tough, independent investigation into whether the White House had outed a CIA operative to undermine Wilson’s credibility "and thus stifle dissent over Iraq policy," The Times had little standing to complain when Fitzgerald did the only thing he could do to crack the case: subpoena reporters.

Still, Fitzgerald should have shut his investigation down long ago — and thereby avoided the dangerous precedent that his subpoenas have set — unless he had evidence that the leakers knew that Plame’s status was highly sensitive. And the prosecutor should now avoid the even more dangerous precedent that he will set if he brings indictments based on the theory (floated in some news reports) that the 1917 espionage law makes every leak of classified information a crime.