By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
October 27, 2005
What distinguishes the CIA leak case from ordinary Washington business is the substance of the leak and the standing of the leakers.
The leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name involved classified information, making its disclosure potentially a criminal offense. The underlying policy was a decision to go to war, a decision in which thousands of lives were at stake. And the players include officials at the highest levels of government and the upper echelon of U.S. journalism.
The result is a potential tempest that could profoundly shake Washington and could raise questions much broader than the legal status of those who might be charged.
A report Tuesday by the New York Times that Vice President Dick Cheney discussed Plame's identity in June 2003 raises questions about the truthfulness of his public statements and speculation that the criminal investigation could reach the all the way to the top.
The decisions to be made this week by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald could touch off a national debate over the lengths to which members of the Bush administration were willing to go to advance their war plans, the credibility of Washington press corps and the ability of the White House to persevere in the midst of a scandal.
Coming amid "so many other negatives for the president," indictments would have an "explosive impact because they involve men who were closest to the president and because (they would involve) the lead-up to the Iraq war," said David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
The scope of the political hurricane about to hit the nation's capital is less predictable than that of the storms that have ravaged the Gulf Coast. Fitzgerald is expected to announce indictments, if any are coming, no later than Friday, when the grand jury hearing evidence in the matter is scheduled to disband.
Much of what is known about the case at this point is the result of leaks, an irony that points to the pervasiveness of secretly divulging information to the media in Washington. Officials often reveal unflattering information about their opponents on the condition that they not be identified in order to avoid the consequences of any negative reactions.
"It's standard fare in Washington. It's hardball politics, which most of the time is played out right in front of people's noses on television during campaigns," said Gergen, who served under four presidents and as editor of the magazine U.S. News & World Report.
So it surprises few Washington veterans that White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove or Cheney's chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby held off-the-record conversations with journalists in which they tried to disparage Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson. Wilson, a former ambassador, had been dispatched to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was seeking to purchase nuclear materials; then he publicly questioned the White House's motives for going to war and ignoring his advice.
"Part of the role of being in the White House is to obviously try to counter many of the attacks that are coming at you that can undermine your initiatives," said Leon Panetta, the former Democratic representative from Monterey who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff.
Yet the information this time included divulging Wilson's wife's status as an employee at the CIA, arousing the interest of reporters as well as law-enforcement officials.
"Any leak that deals with national security or the CIA is always exciting. In Washington it's like showing pictures of people with no clothes on," said Bill Frenzel, who represented Minnesota in the House as a Republican for 20 years and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Frenzel said he is not convinced any laws were broken, but he acknowledged that "when you have a president whose popularity is way down, even very small matters can become very important."
Panetta said a "red flag should go up when you are dealing with information involving national security issues, particularly someone involved with the CIA."
Whether they broke national security laws by intentionally divulging a secret agent's identity, or merely confirmed something that reporters found out elsewhere, Panetta said disclosing such information steps over a line that any White House official, certainly at the level of Libby or Rove, should understand well.
"Sometimes what happens in the White House is that arrogance begins to take over, and you begin to exert an influence in ways that take you down the wrong road. There becomes an attitude that you can get away with anything you want to do. There seems to be an attitude that they could probably say anything, do anything, and not have it come back to bite them," Panetta said.
At the heart of the investigation is how the Bush administration handled intelligence information regarding Iraq's pursuit of nuclear weapons, the underpinning for the war that claimed its 2,000th U.S. military death on Tuesday.
Critics are certain to seize on any indictments as evidence that the Bush administration was manipulating intelligence to justify the invasion. That is the charge that Wilson made after President Bush, during his 2003 State of the Union address, asserted that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy nuclear materials from Niger. The assertion came after Wilson had returned from his CIA-sponsored fact-finding trip to Niger and reported that such allegations were baseless. As Wilson began to go public with his accusations, the details of his wife's employment at the CIA were leaked.
Though the Bush White House is remarkably disciplined, and often sparing, in its distribution of information, it has provided strategic leaks to advance its agenda in the past. Rove has long been linked to damaging information emerging about Bush's political rivals, ranging from charges that Texas Gov. Ann Richards appointed "avowed activists and homosexuals" to high offices, as a Bush ally once charged, to rumors that Sen. John McCain had abandoned the plight of veterans and fathered an illegitimate black child and that Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam War honors were undeserved. Though Rove never was directly linked to the leaks, his candidate benefited greatly from the whisper campaigns.
Cheney's involvement adds a potentially explosive wrinkle to the controversy, which threatens to distract Bush from his already foundering second-term agenda.
The New York Times reported that Libby had learned of Plame's identity during a conversation with Cheney on June 12, 2003. The report is at odds with Cheney's comments on NBC a few months later that he didn't know who sent Wilson to Niger.
"He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back," Cheney said at the time. "I don't know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn't judge him. I have no idea who hired him."
The report also contradicts an account by reporter Judith Miller in the Times, which said Libby told her in an off-the-record meeting less than two weeks after his conversation with Cheney that "Mr. Cheney did not know of Mr. Wilson, much less know that Mr. Wilson had traveled to Niger."
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