At this point, even after several days of speculation and a certain amount of digging, there is probably more that we don’t know than we do — and it might just turn out to be much ado about not much at all. But the possibility that somebody or somebodies in the administration leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative to journalists as part of a punitive political ploy, which could be not just troubling but criminal, deserves at least the Justice Department investigation it is apparently going to get.
Although some of the complaints are clearly partisan posturing, the basic charge is a serious one. A criminal investigation might uncover what actually happened, but it might not explain why it happened. Beyond the partisan desire to pin anything possible on the president or his staff, could it be that elements of what is politely called the intelligence community are upset enough with the Bush administration to mount operations intended to embarrass or punish it? That’s potentially more important than a passing scandal.
Here’s the basic story. Former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had served in both Iraq and Africa, was apparently asked by workers in the CIA in February 2002 to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire low-grade uranium from Niger in Africa. He returned, saying there was nothing to it, and after President Bush had mentioned (rather generally) the Iraq-Africa connection in his State of the Union message in January 2003 and then — after major combat was over — Wilson wrote about his story in the New York Times.
Shortly after that, Robert Novak mentioned in a column that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA and might have recommended him for the assignment. Wilson then charged the administration had “outed” his wife as a CIA agent to punish him and discourage others from criticizing administration policy.
The flap gained new legs last weekend after the CIA formally requested that the Justice Department look into whether an administration source illegally blew Plame’s CIA cover. It is illegal for a government employee to reveal the name of an undercover CIA operative.
Subsequently, another anonymous source told the Washington Post that two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists with Valerie Plame’s name and that “clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge.” The administration and the president have denied such charges and have said they will cooperate with the Justice Department and punish the malefactor if he or she is discovered.
Among the many things not known for certain: Was Valerie Plame really an undercover agent or simply an analyst, as Robert Novak says his sources at the CIA led him to believe? Was this really an effort to punish Wilson or his wife, or something else? Was there a crime or just a mistake?
Dr. Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at Oakland’s Independent Institute and a former investigative staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggests the flap surfacing now suggests that the intelligence community may be serving notice on the administration. Not only is “outing” an undercover agent illegal, it’s a prime crime in intelligence circles.
And, he said, “It is an open secret that U.S. intelligence agencies felt pressured by the Bush administration to exaggerate the threat of Iraqi WMDs and find alleged links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s regime.” So anger over a number of issues may be bubbling.
The incident is growing increasingly bizarre, with one of the journalists allegedly contacted only speaking to other journalists anonymously.
A special outside investigator doesn’t seem warranted just now, nor does the misbegotten institution of special prosecutor need reviving. The Justice Department people handling the case are said to be career professionals, not political appointees. We hope they move quickly and effectively.
But the fact of an ongoing investigation shouldn’t deter journalists from digging into it at the same time.
The disinfectant of sunshine is much needed here.