By DAN K. THOMASSON
In 43 years of reporting in this town, I have never seen a more bizarre, silly, overblown and wasteful affair than the investigation of the leak that identified one-time CIA covert operative Valerie Plame. At times the noise level has been so loud that one would think that her identification had severely compromised national security and that those involved in the revelation were guilty of nothing less than treason.
In reality, the disclosure didn’t even violate the law passed originally to prevent the outing of covert intelligence operatives. Furthermore, we now believe that the FBI had identified the source of the leak, apparently by the source’s own admission, even before the appointment of a special prosecutor who quickly determined that the statute had not been breached, much to the unhappiness of Democrats, who had pressed for his appointment. So why was the investigation not halted there, saving millions of taxpayer dollars in actual expenses and much more in the man hours spent by top-ranking government officials defending themselves and their reputations?
Apparently because the CIA pressed the matter as a diversion from the mounting furor over its own inadequacies in counterintelligence, ranging from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to its assessment of Iraq’s nuclear and biochemical capabilities. The agency clearly was under siege and had sent Plame’s husband, a self-promoting former minor ambassador, Joseph Wilson, off to Africa to discover whether British reports of Iraqi nuclear activities there were accurate. Wilson came back convinced they weren’t, and immediately began trumpeting his conclusions to the embarrassment of the White House.
The disclosure of Plame’s name by a syndicated columnist apparently stemmed from an offhand, innocent remark by then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was unaware that Plame had once been undercover. He reportedly had read a memo on Plame’s involvement in the decision to tap Wilson for the African assignment, and at the end of a conversation with columnist Robert Novak mentioned that she was a CIA employee. Novak double-checked it with the White House’s Karl Rove _ and the fat, as they say, was in the fire.
Having decided quickly that no law had been violated there, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago immediately turned his sights on a dozen White House sources he suspected had not been truthful in their interviews with the FBI and later with the grand jury. This led him to indict "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney’s top aide, for perjury and obstruction of justice for testifying he first heard the information about Plame from a television correspondent who denied that was the case. Fitzgerald saw this as a deliberate lie to protect Cheney and others in the White House.
Huzza! Fitzgerald had nabbed a master criminal, justifying all his time and taxpayer money. The Republic has been saved. Plame and Wilson are Inside the Beltway celebrities and Libby, who we now know was not the original source by a long shot, stands in danger of being clapped in irons and sent to the slammer. One could only hope that if that occurs President Bush will do the right thing and pardon him.
In the process of this farce, the press’s right to protect the identity of sources has been severely undercut; one reporter spent time in jail for a story she never wrote and then had her career derailed, and other journalists now find themselves in the position of having to testify against those who provided them with information, leaving their watchdog mission in jeopardy.
The fact that Armitage provided the FBI with an admission that he had been the source of Novak’s column should have been enough to end the entire business. There was no need for a special counsel. The regular prosecutor would have done just as well. Was the White House incensed enough to try to use that leak to disparage Wilson’s conclusions that Iraq was not trying to buy "yellow cake" uranium from Africa? Of course it was. But so what? That is the way the game is and always has been played in this town. While it isn’t terribly nice at times, it is the normal course of politics.
Meanwhile, because common sense seems not to be one of this prosecutor’s strong suits, we most likely will continue to suffer through a spectacle that is far worse in its potential results and future implications than the original leak ever was.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)