With the coerced testimony of New York Times reporter Judith Miller in his pocket, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is now free to complete his probe of the Bush administration’s “outing” of CIA covert officer Valerie Plame. Fitzgerald might have difficulty proving that two government officials–”Karl Rove, the president’s ruthless political operative, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff–”knew of Plame’s covert designation and violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by intentionally leaking her identity. On the other hand, some analysts believe Fitzgerald will try to indict Rove and Libby on conspiracy charges, which are much easier cases to make. Only the special counsel knows the strength of his evidence, whether or not he will seek indictments, and on what charges. Because the term of the grand jury expires by the end of October, the public should know the outcome of Fitzgerald’s inquiry by then.
But President Bush has enough information now to fire both Rove and Libby. Plame was “outed” as revenge for her husband’s–”Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s–”campaign to debunk the president’s dubious pre-Iraq War claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium in Niger for his alleged nuclear weapons program. After the CIA sent Wilson to Niger in February 2002 to investigate the charges, he concluded there were no such purchase attempts. However, almost a year later, in his January 2003 State of the Union message, President Bush continued to insist that Hussein had tried to make the purchases. Outraged, Wilson launched a public effort to refute the administration’s sleight of hand. Once the invasion of Iraq began and the administration, in response to public and media pressure, was scrambling unsuccessfully to uncover an Iraqi nuclear program, the campaign to undermine Wilson’s findings began.
According to lawyers in the case, since Judith Miller’s grand jury testimony it has become apparent that Libby told at least two reporters that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. He testified, however, that he did not use her name or disclose that she was a covert CIA operative. Similarly, Rove testified that he talked to two reporters about Plame but insisted that he did not mention her name or her covert job at the agency. Yet both men likely knew of her covert status from a State Department report circulated to high-level administration officials on the “uranium in Niger” issue that contained a secret section with data on Plame. At a minimum, even talking to reporters about Wilson’s wife in more general terms indicates that Rove and Libby lied to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who passed on to the press their categorical denial of being involved in any part of the affair.
By their identical and clever defenses, both of these high level officials are attempting to skirt the relatively short reach of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. They slyly told reporters that Wilson’s wife worked for the agency and allowed the journalists to sniff out the rest.
Based on their cunning, Rove and Libby may avoid indictments or beat any that are thrown at them. But they shouldn’t be able to escape the president’s axe. In the isolated and abstract world of Washington, rough and tumble politics has long been regarded as just good clean fun. But this is not just a case of the White House answering its critics, as supporters of the administration contend. Political hardball can have grave real world consequences. Exposing CIA agents can get people killed. In this case, the danger is not as much to Plame, who apparently worked on weapons nonproliferation issues for the CIA, as to all of her contacts and informants in developing nations who might be killed, tortured, or imprisoned for having contact with an American CIA operative. Thus, these kinds of political antics can undermine future, constructive intelligence efforts to gain information on the dangerous proliferation of weapons of mass destruction around the world.
For an administration that accuses critics of the Iraq war of being “unpatriotic,” the cynical exposure of a U.S. covert intelligence officer by administration officials is the pinnacle of hypocrisy. Given my opposition to the war, I am reluctant to impugn anyone’s patriotism. But what Rove and Libby perpetrated was not a mere disagreement on policy. Government officials who were truly patriotic would never undermine the nation’s intelligence efforts and endanger the lives of people who take great risks to help protect this country.
The conventional wisdom is that President Bush never fires anyone. That is not true. Unfortunately, he usually fires truth tellers that stray from official White House spin–”for example, Gen. Edward Shinseki, the Chief of Staff of the Army, for saying that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to occupy Iraq, and Larry Lindsey, the president’s chief economist, for his estimate that the war in Iraq would cost $200 billion. This time the president should fire some of the liars who have been loyal to the White House but disloyal to the nation.