This White House Scandal Finally Tips the Scale!Fri Aug 10, 2012 21:56126.96.36.199This White House Scandal Finally Tips the Scale!
Leak-Gate Part 1: The Lies
Leak-Gate Part 2: The Leak
Leak-Gate Part 3: ‘more leaks, call the plumber'
It is easy to imagine that Valerie Plame had it all, even if no one was allowed to know it. She was smart and beautiful and disarming, married to a former ambassador and the 40-year-old mother of 3-year-old twins. Best of all, she had a job that let her try to save the world. At least she did until July 14. That's when her role as a cia spy tracking weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was revealed by columnist Robert Novak after two Bush Administration officials leaked her identity to him. Her exposure was more than just a personal tragedy, though it was certainly that too. "Her career as an undercover operative is over," says former CIA officer Jim Marcinkowski, now a prosecutor in Royal Oak, Mich. He was a classmate of Plame's during the year rookie spies spend at the Farm, the Camp Peary, Va., school where CIA recruits learn how to read code and sneak through checkpoints and memorize secret documents. At the Farm, Plame stood out, he recalls, for being the best shot with an AK-47 in the entire class. "She will no longer be safe traveling overseas," he says. "I liken that to the knee-capping of an athlete."
But the reverberations of the latest scandal to rattle a presidency go far beyond the destruction of one covert officer's career. The charge on the table is that the White House leaked her name as an act of revenge, to punish her husband Joseph Wilson for suggesting in public that the Bush Administration had stretched the evidence about Saddam Hussein's nuclear arsenal in order to justify a new kind of war. With the latest polls showing support for that war waning and anger over its price tag rising, the Wilson flap fueled the perception that the White House cared more about selling its case for war than ensuring that the case was right in the first place.
What shook up the intelligence community also roiled the capital and set in motion the now familiar chain of scapegoating and backstabbing that has poisoned the past two presidencies. Having fumbled around in the drawer for months looking for a weapon to use against Bush, the Democrats saw an opening. On top of a moody economy, a messy war, a swelling budget deficit and a deeply polarized electorate, the leak charges came as Bush's poll numbers had sunk to the lowest point in his tenure. Indeed, with the presidential election a little more than a year away, only 37% of Americans believe the country is on the right track, according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll. When word spread last week that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was launching a full criminal probe into who had leaked Plame's identity, Democrats immediately raised a public alarm: How could Justice credibly investigate so secretive an Administration, especially when the investigators are led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose former paid political consultant Karl Rove was initially accused by Wilson of being the man behind the leak? A TIME review of federal and state election records reveals that Ashcroft paid Rove's Texas firm $746,000 for direct-mail services in two gubernatorial campaigns and one Senate race from 1984 through 1994. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said accusations of Rove's peddling information are "ridiculous." Says McClellan: "There is simply no truth to that suggestion."
So when Plame's husband tried to step in front of the shoot-first, verify-later car that Bush had been steering, it was only a matter of time before the hard-liners tried to flatten Wilson. A year before the war began, he had been sent by the CIA to investigate British intelligence claims that Saddam was trying to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger. Wilson seemed like an understandable choice for the secret cia mission: he had been a diplomat in Niger in the '70s and had been the last U.S. envoy to meet Saddam before George H.W. Bush began the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. The yellowcake story was tantalizing to hard-liners because it backed their hunch that Saddam had been trying to acquire the makings of a nuclear weapon. But after an eight-day trip, Wilson concluded that the yellowcake claims were bogus.
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hroughout the summer of 2002, hard-liners ignored his findings and touted the tale anyway. Tenet and the CIA tried to shoot down the story again last fall as Bush was mobilizing for war. But the President made the charge in his State of the Union speech in January. The commotion had for the most part died down when Wilson broke a year's silence in July and wrote a New York Times op-ed piece criticizing the Administration for having "twisted" the intel in order to "exaggerate" the Iraqi threat. Wilson had a revelation of his own: it was Cheney who had approached the cia, asking questions about the implication of an intelligence report on Iraq's seeking uranium in Africa. The CIA in turn responded by asking Wilson to embark on his trip. Cheney's staff has adamantly denied initiating the Wilson assignment, saying that midlevel CIA officials chose to dispatch Wilson on their own. Indeed, not even CIA chief Tenet knew of the trip.
That was news enough, but Wilson went a crucial step further. He implied that Bush either was wrong about the yellowcake or ignored information that "did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq." In the view of the hard-liners, the gravity of the charge demanded a response in kind. In the days after Wilson's essay appeared, government officials began to steer reporters away from Wilson's conclusions, raising questions about his veracity and the agency's reasons for sending him in the first place. They told reporters that Wilson's evidence was thin, said his homework was shoddy and suggested that he had been sent to Niger by the CIA only because his wife had nominated him for the job.
The double-barreled leak had two targets. One was to tag Wilson as a tired, second-rate diplomat who couldn't get a job without his wife's help. The leakers also wanted to drop the hint that the CIA had purposefully chosen someone it believed would come back with a skeptical finding.
To the hard-liners, Wilson was exactly the wrong guy to send on a WMD hunt, particularly when it concerned Iraq. He had worked on President Clinton's national-security staff, contributed $2,000 to John Kerry's presidential campaign and made a donation to Al Gore's presidential bid in 2000 (as did his wife). And even though Wilson had given money to Bush that year as well, the hard-liners believed his instincts matched those of most people at the cia—moderate, internationalist and, above all, too slow to see the enemy forming over the horizon.
When Novak's column naming Plame appeared July 14, the pundit asked whether the Administration had "deliberately ignored Wilson's advice" and repeated the Administration charge that Wilson's wife suggested her husband for the mission to Niger. Wilson, in a report that appeared on TIME's website three days after Novak's column, said his work with the CIA had nothing to do with his wife. "That's bull____. That is absolutely not the case. I met with between six and eight analysts and operators from CIA and elsewhere (before his February 2002 trip to Niger). None of the people in that meeting did I know and they took the decision to send me." Wilson then added, "This is a smear job."
Character assassination isn't a felony, but revealing the name of a CIA officer is. It was the President's father, a former spy chief, who called it treason to leak the name of an undercover officer. And in this case, the officer was one who was working on the most vital security issue of all, the proliferation of WMD. At a time when good intelligence and successful spying has never been more essential to the nation's defense, the deliberate unmasking of a spy sent shudders through the secret web of spooks worldwide. When a U.S. operative is unmasked, foreign spy agencies go back, retrace his steps, review his contacts and try to figure out how the CIA operated in their country. "Anyone who was seen with her overseas is tainted now," warns a former officer who knew Plame. "If she went to the grocery store and talked to the grocer, people will say, 'I wonder if he was working for her?'"
In Plame's case, the damage may go even deeper. Plame was an NOC, meaning she did her job overseas under nonofficial cover and not out of an embassy or government office. Many in her family did not know she worked for the agency. Such unofficial covers are often with private companies to further disguise an operative's real work. Plame had worked with Brewster Jennings & Associates, an obscure energy firm that may have been a CIA front company. Deep covers take time, luck and work to develop; the outing of an noc also blows the cover of the involved business or private entity.
Word that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the White House, State Department and Pentagon for leakers threw the West Wing into understandable confusion—not that it has been on its game lately. For most of last week, Administration officials felt their way carefully, hoping not to bump into anything sharp. Spokesman McClellan spent several days back on his heels trying to rejigger his original sweeping claims of innocence into more elastic arguments that left open the possibility that this was all a big misunderstanding.
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Following procedure, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales told all officials to preserve their documents relating to the leak. But the mood in the West Wing was anything but normal. In that small part of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that is open to the press, staff members were told to leave their doors open to show that everyone was at ease. Instead of planning policy, aides were cycling through their e-mail in and out boxes back to February 2002 to meet Gonzales' order. Aides who may have known about the Wilson leak as it was happening were mulling whether to hire a lawyer, weighing where personal interests might diverge from professional ones. "This is big and scary," said a staff member who is intimately involved.
Bush, who has lacked a sense of command in public for some weeks now, looked a little steadier than his aides, but the steely hang-the-guilty determination he reserves for terrorists and other evildoers was missing when it came to discussing the possible leakers in his midst. Asked about the accusations concerning Rove, his political alter ego, Bush said, "Listen, I know of nobody—I don't know of anybody in my Administration who leaked classified information." Bush seemed to emphasize those last two words as if hanging on to a legal life preserver in choppy seas. "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action." Then he added, "This investigation is a good thing."
Page 4 - The War over the Leak (Cont'd)
But the White House was already shaping the outline of a defense in the event any leakers are found by the fbi or come forward on their own. White House officials argued privately that it was possible that whoever leaked Plame's identity may not have known she was undercover, as the law requires for prosecution. While the Administration suggested that perhaps hundreds of people knew of Plame's spywork, some in the White House admitted that the West Wing was on the hunt for Clinton-like technicalities to skate through. "I did not have conversations with that man," one wry aide quipped. Bush has seldom been in this position before—that is, on the political defensive. Republicans watching the White House wondered last week how long it would take for Bush to get his mojo back, and several even reminisced fondly about the way Bill Clinton would fight hardest when all seemed lost. "Bush is the opposite of Clinton," said one, trying not to sound worried. "He's all offense and no defense. Clinton was awesome when his back was against the wall. Bush doesn't know where to turn."
The Justice Department is trying to make a swift start, perhaps to forestall calls for a special counsel. The clamor faded a bit last week, but it will be back. So half a dozen agents are on the case, government sources told TIME, led by Inspector John Eckenrode, a seasoned veteran of leak probes and other sensitive investigations. Plame was interviewed by the fbi for the first time last Friday. But if the probers narrow their scope to a shortlist of possible leakers, the handling of the case could become very controversial very quickly. fbi agents have already been asking reporters for their voluntary cooperation—it never hurts to try—but what happens if everyone in the White House denies being the leaker and all the reporters involved refuse to name their sources?
One irony here is that a special counsel might actually help the White House keep the story off the front page. Damaging as they were in the Clinton years, well-managed special counsels have the one advantage of theoretically putting everything under a cone of silence and allowing a President to move on. Some legal experts have noted that special counsels are needed not to open probes but to end them. "DOJ won't be able to make this case," says a former Clinton Justice official, noting the difficulty of leak hunts, "but it also won't be able to close it because nobody will believe them." That's why, notes George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general in the first Bush Administration, "in some cases, it's absolutely true that due to personalities and circumstances, the perception of the integrity of the resulting judgment will be enhanced if some outside person ... is brought in."
Just because most experts predict the legal damage to be limited does not mean the political fight will end soon. One of the reasons the fight feels even uglier and more desperate than usual is that it comes at a time when almost every political institution seems tarnished. To the extent that the Bush Administration has to answer for David Kay's failure to find any WMD in Iraq, its answer is that fault lies with the shortcomings of the intelligence community. The spies, for their part, have been quick to remind their allies on Capitol Hill of the White House's and hard-liners' refusal to listen to their footnotes, warnings and caveats last year. And the Democrats, who had forgotten what it was like even to glimpse the political upper hand, seem just a little bit too happy that the WMD hunters have come up empty-handed and the situation in Iraq is becoming an ever greater liability for the President. With the White House, the cia, Democrats and Republicans so busy covering their tracks, it is no wonder that public confidence in their judgments and motives is shaken when the nation's challenges seem only to be growing.
—Reported by Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, James Carney, Matthew Cooper, John F. Dickerson, Viveca Novak, Elaine Shannon, Karen Tumulty, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
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