Too many lies, too few secrets

Is there any active reporter inside the Beltway who didn’t know that former Ambassador Joe Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA? It appears to have been the worst-kept secret in Washington.

Suddenly we discover that The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward was informed about Valerie Plame’s position a full month before it was disclosed to the world by columnist Robert Novak.

Unlike several of the dramatis personae in this growing farce about leaks, Woodward has withheld from the public the identity of his informant _ Karl Rove immediately denied it was he, leading to speculation that the name might be revealed in a book at a later date, a sort of Deep Throat II.

Most importantly, Woodward says he didn’t get the information from Vice President Cheney’s man, Scooter Libby, who has been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to intrepid special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald and the FBI that he first heard about Plame from NBC’s Tim Russert.

Woodward, who covered Watergate for the Post, did disclose it all to Fitzgerald and it now looks as if the investigator himself misspoke when he informed the nation on television that Libby was the first person to leak on Plame. Woodward apparently didn’t inform his editor about his role in the case _ a serious oversight in good investigative reporting _ until a month ago, although he contended he did tell his longtime Post colleague, Walter Pincus, almost immediately of what he had learned about Plame.

But hold on. According to the Post, Pincus says he doesn’t remember any such conversation and that he certainly would have seeing that he was involved in covering the CIA and the repercussions of Wilson’s report that there was no evidence, as the Bush administration claimed, that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy nuclear material from Africa.

Confused by all this? Well, if you can follow the Byzantine path through this CIA-generated travesty, you probably could write a spy novel rivaling anything produced by John le Carre. Just keep this in mind. There is only one person being charged in this cast of thousands, Libby. He is not accused of breaking the little-used law that makes it a federal offense to deliberately reveal the name of a covert intelligence agent, which, of course, was the premise for the entire investigation. But almost from the beginning Fitzgerald knew he couldn’t prove a violation of the law. The counts filed against Libby have to do with alleged conflicts in his testimony to a grand jury about who told what to whom when.

The disclosure of Plame’s post and her role in recommending her husband to travel to Africa to find out the truth about Iraq’s capabilities, as far as anyone can tell, had no adverse impact on anything. There is no damage to the CIA, her career or the nation. CIA officials just got sore because they were being nailed for lousy work. Spies don’t like leaks unless they are doing the leaking, a way of life in the cloak-and-dagger business.

Woodward’s revelation of his role puts a new cast on this entire matter and strains Fitzgerald’s case even further by creating a major hole in his allegations that Libby was deliberately trying to obstruct justice. Libby contends he is only guilty of faulty recollections about where he originally heard about Plame. Further confusing the issue is Pincus’ challenge to Woodward’s claim of having informed him. Who told Woodward? Could it be one of his many CIA sources? That would really put some fat in the fire.

If the Libby case got to trial, the nation will be treated to the spectacle of a parade of reporters testifying against their source. That is a First Amendment nightmare, not to mention the chilling effect on journalistic access to the inner workings of government. If sources can’t be certain of protection, they will keep their information to themselves and the public will be that worse off.

Having now had success in building a minor spark into a major firestorm in an area where there normally is little productivity _ the investigation of leaks _ the encouraged CIA now wants to go after the sources of the reporter who revealed the presence in Eastern Europe of clandestine CIA prisons. A preliminary inquiry has begun. The CIA’s object seems to be to have a full-blown Justice Department investigation and ultimately bring about another special counsel, who can do more damage to a free press.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)