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Scandal proof
A vengeful White House may have jeopardized national security — and passed it off as a kerfuffle

AMONG CERTAIN ELEMENTS of the media elite, the furor over the Joseph Wilson affair has evoked an almost tribal response — an affectation of world-weary sophistication, a knowing shrug, a what’s-the-big-deal, don’t-you-know-how-Washington-works attitude seemingly aimed more at putting the rubes in their place than at explaining what happened and why it matters.

Of course, journalism — good and bad alike — is highly dependent on leaks, and not just in Washington. But the leak at the heart of the Wilson affair is a rather different matter. In apparent retaliation for Wilson’s public criticism of the Bush administration, the White House revealed to syndicated columnist Robert Novak last July that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA employee whose specialty was weapons of mass destruction.

Because Plame’s work was secret, there is no way any of the media commentators weighing in on this can accurately assess the damage. But certainly, at a minimum, her career has been ruined. Perhaps efforts to control WMD have been compromised. Perhaps foreign officials, spies, and ordinary people with whom she’d had dealings are now in danger. Perhaps even her own safety is at risk, as Wilson suggested on Sunday in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Yet, in some circles, the urge to shrug cannot be resisted. In the current Newsweek, for example, Jonathan Alter, nominally a liberal, sneers, "This story is now a festival of hypocrisy." He observes with evident glee that left-wingers and right-wingers at publications such as the Nation and the Wall Street Journal, respectively, have switched their traditional places regarding the exposure of CIA operations, and that Senator Hillary Clinton, of all people, now favors the appointment of an independent counsel. Who needs outrage when you’ve got irony?

In Monday’s Washington Post, media reporter Howard Kurtz writes, "In a news-obsessed city in which information is power, leaks are a time-honored way for a presidential administration to discredit its critics." Kurtz cites a few serious examples (such as the Nixon administration’s outlaw campaign against Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg), but mainly dwells on such trivia as an old LBJ story about sex with sheep and Bill Clinton’s use of Sidney Blumenthal to smear Monica Lewinsky as a stalker.

And in Monday’s New York Times, conservative columnist William Safire — a veteran of the Nixon administration and such an ardent conspiracy theorist that during the 1990s he ran with the Hillary–killed–Vincent Foster posse — is entirely dismissive of the whole Wilson matter. The headline, WHO’S SHALLOW THROAT?, says it all. For those who are slow in grasping the point, Safire asserts that the CIA’s decision to refer the Plame leak to the Justice Department is no big deal — "something like this happens every week or so."

But despite these and other attempts to place the Wilson affair within a comfortably familiar paradigm, this was no ordinary leak.

Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told me that the outing of Valerie Plame appears to have been intended to send a message to the CIA, whose agents have been at loggerheads with the Bush administration.

As numerous media accounts have made clear, many CIA agents contend they were pressured by the White House to twist their intelligence reports in order to build the administration’s case for Iraq’s alleged WMD capabilities and ties to Al Qaeda. (Leave it to George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and company to recast the CIA as a bunch of liberal anti-war weenies.)

"I think there’s a sense that intelligence follows the political agenda rather than setting the choices for public policy. I think what the Wilson affair has done is shown the consequences for not following that new agenda," says Kayyem. "This is nasty. The motivation to do this — it sets a new low. It just sets an incredibly new low on so many levels. There’s only one rational explanation for why this was done, and it was clearly to send a message out that if you publicly criticize this administration, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, there might be consequences to suffer."

Kayyem thinks it unlikely that Plame, a married mother living in the Virginia suburbs, was a covert operative. But, she says, "It was clear that her status was meant to be confidential. The reasons why are irrelevant. If the CIA felt that whatever she did constituted having a classified designation, who is the White House to second-guess that?"

The reasons for outing Plame — if, indeed, a reason can even be discerned — have their roots in the Bush administration’s attempts to build a case for war. If the White House could have convinced the public that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, then much of the skepticism over its aggressive foreign policy would have melted away.

Wilson’s role in discrediting the administration may have been small, but he was unusually effective in exposing the depths of the Bushies’ cynicism. Which may be why the retaliation against him and his wife was so swift and damaging.

ON JUNE 12, as the glow from the rapid victory in Iraq was fading and the hunt for WMD was going nowhere, the Washington Post published a front-page report by Walter Pincus. He wrote that, in February 2002, the CIA "had dispatched a retired US ambassador" to Niger in order to investigate claims that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium, used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Pincus added that the ambassador, whom he did not name, concluded "that the uranium-purchase story was false," but that the CIA "did not include details of the former ambassador’s report and his identity as the source, which would have added to the credibility of his findings."

On July 6, Wilson, in a now-famous op-ed piece for the New York Times, identified himself as the unnamed ambassador. "I spent ... eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people," Wilson wrote, language that has since been exploited by his enemies to make it sound like he approached his mission to the impoverished desert nation as though it were a vacation. Wilson added, "It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had taken place," citing the strict international controls under which Niger’s two uranium mines operated and the fact that the documents of the alleged transaction had reportedly been forged — although he noted that he himself had not seen those documents.

President Bush and other administration officials, of course, had continued to make reference to the Nigerien connection in the months after Wilson’s mission. Bush himself uttered those infamous 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address, nearly a year later. (As Bob Somerby has pointed out on his Daily Howler Web site, Bush said "Africa," not "Niger," and in fact there were intelligence reports that Niger was not the only African country from which Iraq may have attempted to acquire uranium. Still, the White House admitted Bush never should have uttered those words.) That made Wilson’s op-ed a potentially explosive refutation.

The counterattack was not long in coming. On July 14, Robert Novak reported, "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report." (Word of the alleged Niger-Iraq deal had originated with Italy’s intelligence service.)

There the matter appeared to rest until September 26, when NBC News reported that the Justice Department, at the request of the CIA, was investigating the leak. The story got an enormous boost two days later, when the Washington Post’s Mike Allen and Dana Priest reported that "before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife." The Post attributed its information to "a senior administration official," raising the specter of an internecine war within the Bush White House.

The Wilson affair has been front-page news ever since. But why did the media wait nearly three months before reporting on this scandal?

The answer is that they didn’t. In fact, there had been a low buzz about the leak from the time Novak’s column appeared right up until September 26. But for reasons that have much to do with the way the media operate and establish priorities, the story — at least at first — lacked the elements that allowed it to reach critical mass.

The first journalist to write about the Wilson affair was David Corn, the Washington editor of the Nation. In a piece for the Nation’s Web site posted on July 16, Corn interviewed Wilson and noted that the leak about Plame was "a potential violation of law" punishable by up to 10 years in prison. "The Wilson smear was a thuggish act," Corn wrote. "Bush and his crew abused and misused intelligence to make their case for war. Now there is evidence Bushies used classified information and put the nation’s counter-proliferation efforts at risk merely to settle a score."

Corn’s piece was followed by Newsday on July 22 (COLUMNIST BLOWS CIA AGENT’S COVER was the right-to-the-point headline) and by Joshua Micah Marshall, who in his column for the Hill and on his well-read weblog, Talking Points Memo, has flogged the Wilson story tirelessly. But the only large national news organization to take note in those early days was Time magazine, whose July 17 piece, headlined A WAR ON WILSON? (answer: yes), mentioned the Plame leak but didn’t quite grasp its significance (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, July 25).

Corn says there is a simple explanation for why the story burst into the national consciousness only with the NBC and Washington Post revelations: the news that CIA director George Tenet himself had asked the Justice Department to investigate provided the media with the "cue" they needed to jump in. As for why Tenet apparently took so long to make his request, Corn says Tenet presumably acted almost as soon as the Novak column appeared; only now is Justice gearing up. "Lawyers and bureaucracies never do anything quickly," he notes.

Corn is also the author of a new book in the rapidly expanding Bush-is-a-liar genre, titled The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown; see I asked Corn how the Wilson affair fits with his thesis of how the Bush White House works.

"It seems to me that the pillars of having honest policy debates are, one, that you’re honest about your facts and your assertions and, two, that you respect your opponents," Corn replied. "The Bush administration put forward misrepresentations on the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to make a case for war, and then, when there was a fellow who challenged their assertions and their policy, they responded by going after him and his family. It’s all about not dealing with the truth. Because they’re not dealing with what Joe Wilson says. They’re dealing with his wife. And they’re trying to diminish his credibility somehow, and/or punish him in order to intimidate others."


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Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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