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By MARTIN SCHRAM
In the category of how Washington really works — and often doesn’t — it is important to note just how often the smartest and most experienced players and observers seem to lose sight of how and why things really happen in the capital city.
Especially, they seem to forget what they know best: That things in Washington don’t happen in a linear and logical way. And never have. Washington is a city of squares that work within squares and yet run in circles within circles.
This lapse seems to have led the wisest in our midst to miss the real significance (or lack of it) of former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s lamentably late decision to publicly confirm he told columnist Robert Novak and The Washington Post reporter and book writer Bob Woodward that the wife of former diplomat Joseph Wilson worked at the CIA and was involved in the decision to send him on his fact-finding mission to Niger. Armitage knew it from a memo prepared by a state department official after inquiries from Vice President Cheney’s office (a memo, by the way, we knew about long ago).
The disclosure about Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, led to a special prosecutor’s probe because she was a covert agent and it is a crime to knowingly divulge a secret agent’s identity. Armitage had told Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald of his role at the outset. Fitzgerald soon focused on whether Vice President Cheney, his chief of staff Lewis (Scooter) Libby and/or presidential strategist Karl Rove also leaked her identity as part of a White House effort to discredit Wilson — and whether they later made untrue statements to federal investigators. The White House assured us it was ridiculous to think Rove and Libby mentioned Plame’s role to reporters — but we now know that they did.
(History: In 2002, the CIA sent private citizen Wilson to Niger to check out reports that Iraq tried to buy yellow cake uranium. He reported finding no evidence Iraq did. But after President Bush asserted there was such evidence in his 2003 State of the Union address, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times outing his findings.)
Now this: The Washington Post editorialized about Armitage’s admission: "It follows that one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House — that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity to ruin her career and thus punish Mr. Wilson — is untrue."
Then came a column by Washington’s most admired political journalist, the Post’s David Broder, a generous colleague and model for generations of journalists: "For much of the past five years, dark suspicions have been voiced about the Bush White House undermining its critics, and Karl Rove has been fingered as the chief culprit in this supposed plot to suppress the opposition. Now at least one count in that indictment has been substantially weakened — the charge that Rove masterminded a conspiracy to discredit Iraq intelligence critic Joseph Wilson by "outing" his CIA-operative wife, Valerie Plame."
Broder properly jabbed some liberal activist-journalists who reached beyond the known facts to attack Rove, and then concluded: "These and other publications owe Karl Rove an apology. And all of journalism needs to relearn the lesson: Can the conspiracy theories and stick to the facts."
That advice, well taken, must now lead us to note the fact that the central assertions in this case are not mutually exclusive. Especially because of the way things work in Washington.
The facts we know provide key answers: Was there a White House effort to discredit Wilson by dishing details to trusted journalists? Yes. Fitzgerald’s public filings last April make that clear.
Were Cheney, Libby and Rove involved in the effort? Again, yes. And Fitzgerald’s filing says President Bush wanted it done. Was it a crime to seek to discredit Wilson? No. Discrediting critics is business as usual in all administrations. But knowingly leaking a covert agent’s identity is a crime.
Was Armitage part of the White House effort? Unlikely. Armitage and Secretary of State Colin Powell were fighting the Cheney-led hardliners.
Is it a crime to make false statements to federal investigators or the grand jury? Yes, big-time.
That’s what we were told by conservatives pushing to impeach a Democratic president who lied under oath about his sex life. This is about national security — outing a covert agent. Cheney’s man Libby was indicted for deceiving the federal investigators — but was it a White House choreographed effort? Now, apparently, some (perhaps Rove) have provided new information, perhaps in exchange for assurances they won’t face trial.
Thus, the crucial facts that are still unknown make clear that it is not yet time for all-clears or apologies. Watch this space.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)