Joseph Wilson — or Mr. Valerie Plame if you prefer — must have been sorely disappointed to learn that Karl Rove is not going to be “frog walked” out of the White House in handcuffs as he had so fervently hoped. After all he and the little lady had been dining out on that prospect for almost three years.
Now all that seemingly remains of his apparent desire to see the White House embroiled in a scandal that at least matched the Watergate debacle is the eventual trial, if it ever occurs, of an assistant to the vice president — hardly what one would call a historic event despite the fact it does have constitutional implications for the press and some potential for embarrassment to Dick Cheney.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s decision not to charge the president’s deputy chief of staff sent an all-clear sign to the Oval Office, leaving George Bush relieved and Scooter Libby, former top aide to Cheney, likely to be the sole person indicted in an investigation that has preoccupied Washington’s liberal salons for nearly three years at no small expense to taxpayers. It is difficult to believe that is enough to sustain the Vanity Fair social status of Wilson and Plame, whose disclosure as a sometime CIA covert operative brought about this entire debacle.
For those outside the Beltway who haven’t been paying attention with the same diligence as those inside it, Wilson is a former minor ambassador who got sent to Africa to determine the accuracy of American and British claims that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium for weapons of mass destruction, a major justification for the invasion of Iraq. Wilson reported the allegations unsupported, angering the administration from Bush down, and setting off a furor about who sent him to Africa. In an apparent effort to refute his report, it was disclosed to the press that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and may have had a hand in his assignment.
The question then became whether an obscure never used law making it a crime to reveal the identity of a covert intelligence operative had been violated. Fitzgerald was appointed and determined fairly quickly that there was no evidence to support a prosecution on that charge. However, he seemed determined to prove that administration officials had lied to his investigators and a grand jury about their press contacts. He ultimately charged Libby with obstruction of justice and perjury. Since then it has been discovered that any number of reporters knew about Plame’s position in the CIA and had talked about it.
During all this much-ado-about-nothing, a reporter was sent to jail for refusing to reveal the source of a story she never wrote; the First Amendment rights of the press have been trampled, the reputations of any number of officials have been damaged; the public has been socked for millions of dollars with more to go; the life of a dedicated public servant, Libby, has been forever altered and, of course, Wilson and his wife have become social celebrities.
All in all this has been another prime example of how zealous special prosecutors since Watergate have dipped into the treasury to carry out prolonged, politically tainted investigations of matters of dubious importance. This case never has been about a threat to national security, or even the life of an intelligence agent.
Early in the investigation, Wilson met at breakfast with a group of reporters and made it clear that he felt there was a major conspiracy at the highest level of government that blew his wife’s cover and attempted to defame him — a claim that emphasized the importance of his mission to Africa and his role in debunking the premise on which the Iraq war was launched. He later just happened to go to work for a time for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign.
In consolation for their dashed hopes, Democrats and others who regard Rove as an evil presence in the White House — after all he got that dastardly Bush elected twice — can take solace in their belief that his credibility has been severely compromised, having denied early on through the press office that he had anything whatsoever to do with talking to reporters about Plame. He in fact had. He should apologize to then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan, they argue.
Some wag even suggested that Rove’s detractors wouldn’t be satisfied until he went before the cameras to make that apology in a frog suit. Perhaps that honor should go to Wilson, also. Maybe Fitzgerald should join them.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)