Leak Wars

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Roll up for the Washington media circus! CIA operatives revealed! Inflated rhetoric, right and left! Live conspiracy theories! Wild rumors! This week only: Pundits spin at warp-speed!

As Mother Jones pointed out earlier this week, Robert Novak’s July 14th column revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame went largely unnoticed until CIA Director George Tenet requested an investigation into the leak. On Wednesday the White House “ vowed to cooperate” with the investigation, and the justice department says there’s no need for an independent counsel. At the end of the FBI’s great whodunnit hunt, we may know who did the leaking. Until then it’s a media free-for-all, with everybody getting their shots in.

On the left, the pundits are doing their best to trace the leak directly back to two favorite White House targets: Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.

The London Guardian’s Julian Borger explores the allegations that Rove is at the center of what is “fast becoming the administration’s worst scandal since coming to office.” Commentator Joe Conason takes the opportunity to vilify the administration, accusing Bush of acquiescing to an investigation only when pressed, weeks after the fact. And forget about a fair investigation:

“As for Attorney General John Ashcroft, he simply cannot be trusted to oversee the Justice Department investigation requested by the C.I.A. His longstanding political ties with Mr. Rove alone require that he recuse himself and appoint an independent or special counsel. He should try to appoint someone of probity, if he is able to discern that quality. Perhaps Robert Fisk or William Weld would accept the job.

I always knew that if the Bush family returned to power, we would regret the expiration of the Independent Counsel Act.”

The Baltimore Sun’s editors say that even if “Boy Wonder” Rove isn’t himelf the source of the leak, it’s utimately still his fault:

“Mr. Wilson suspects the leak had the blessing of Bush political guru Karl Rove; the White House denies Mr. Rove was involved. But the leakers were likely encouraged by the climate Mr. Rove has created in which political concerns regularly take priority over policy objectives. The firestorm Mr. Wilson created, forcing the president to retract his State of the Union claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Africa, may in some twisted mindset have justified whatever response the president’s men could muster.”

Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill of Democracy Now! do their best to drag Vice President Dick Cheney into the mix. Recalling that Wilson was well-respected by the Bush Sr. administration, for which Cheney was Secretary of Defense, they marvel at Cheney’s claims on NBC’s Meet the Press that “I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson,” and “I have no idea who hired him.”

“While Cheney may not know Wilson, there is little doubt he knows of him. When Cheney was helping run the Persian Gulf War, as secretary of defense, Wilson was one of the key players.”

What’s Cheney hiding? What’s the White House hiding?”

On the right, the pundits are in damage-control mode, which as usual looks an awful lot like attack mode. The immediate targets: Wilson himself, whom they dismiss as a reflexive Bush critic, and the “liberal media,” which they attack for focusing on the Plame disclosure for political reasons while missing the “real” scandal here. The Wall Street Journal’s Editors, for one, purport that Democrats and lefties are making way too big of a deal of this– and all (brace yourself) for political gain:

“The reason this is suddenly a story is because Mr. Rove, the President’s political strategist and confidant from Texas, has become the main target.

The real intelligence scandal is how an open opponent of the U.S. war on terror such as Mr. Wilson was allowed to become one of that policy’s investigators. That egregious CIA decision echoes what has obviously been a long-running attempt by anonymous ‘intelligence sources’ quoted in the media to undermine the Bush policy toward Iraq. Mr. Bush’s policies of prevention and pursuing state sponsors of terror overturned more than 30 years of CIA anti-terror dogma, and some of the bureaucrats are hoping to defeat him in 2004.

Which brings us back to the politics. The Democratic Presidential candidates are naturally all over this pseudo-story, calling for a ‘special counsel’ and Congressional probe. They can suddenly posture as great defenders of the CIA and covert operations, though some of them spent the decades before 9/11 assailing both. And if they can’t get Mr. Bush to give up Mr. Rove, perhaps they can keep the story going through next November.”

Anyway, James S. Robbins of the National Review claims that Wilson, as well as being full of it, was unqualified for his assignment.

“As noted, Wilson came away with no evidence that the 1999 uranium sale had taken place. But over the last few months, particularly since Wilson’s New York Times piece, this very narrow finding has been taken as proof that Iraq never even tried to obtain uranium. That was not the question Wilson was sent to Niger to answer, and his investigation certainly never came close to being that thorough. Yet the press reflexively cites this brief visit as the basis for the definitive answer on the entire Niger uranium controversy. Wilson’s purported influence has been inflated to the point where otherwise sensible people (and some not-so) are alleging that the inner circles of the White House had to resort to felonious leaking to discredit him.”

What this ignores is that Wilson was sent to Niger to bolster the administration’s case for war after it was proven that Bush lied in his state of the union address about uranium trade to Iraq. Wilson went to Niger in response to the CIA and International Atomic Energy Association’s findings that the original claims that Niger sold uranium to Iraq were based on forged documents. It’s unfortunate for Robbins that, as Democracy Now! reports, other diplomats and investigators supported Wilson’s assessment:

“The US ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, knew of the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq and had already debunked them in her reports back to Washington. Wilson’s conclusions also coincided with those of Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces four-star Marine Corps General, Carlton Fulford, who had also researched the matter on the ground in Niger. Wilson felt he had authoritatively debunked the Niger rumor and ‘the matter was settled.'”

While Robbins notes “the eagerness of the press to set themselves on scandal autopilot,” Clifford May, also at the National Review, tries another approach, claiming to detect a “manufactured conspiracy:”

“Robert Novak clarified that the information about Ms. Plame was not exactly leaked but arose in the natural course of his interview process.”

Sure. Nobody blew Plame’s cover, May insists, because her CIA connection was never much of a secret. (Somebody should tell George Tenet.)

“[Plame’s CIA status] wasn’t news to me. I had been told that — but not by anyone working in the White House. Rather, I learned it from someone who formerly worked in the government and he mentioned it in an offhand manner, leading me to infer it was something that insiders were well aware of.”

What did appear relevant could easily be found in what the CIA would call “open sources.” For example, Mr. Wilson had long been a bitter critic of the current administration, writing in such left-wing publications as The Nation that under President Bush, “America has entered one of it periods of historical madness” and had “imperial ambitions.”

It has to be seen as puzzling that the agency would deal with an inquiry from the White House on a sensitive national-security matter by sending a retired, Bush-bashing diplomat with no investigative experience. Or didn’t the CIA bother to look into Mr. Wilson’s background?”

So, to recap: no secrets were revealed, the only errors were those made by the CIA, and the scandal is merely a politically-motivated witch hunt confected by a Bush-hating diplomat, liberal reporters, and the Democrats. Got it.

But the Left can dish it out as well as take it. Joshua Micah Marshall in his blog, Talking Points Memo, points out that May might have assumed Plame’s undercover status was common knowledge because his frame of reference was that of someone close to (if not part of) the Wilson smear campaign:

“People in the diplomatic community or those who follow Africa certainly knew of Wilson. But I doubt May — who’s an insider by any definition — even knew who Wilson was before all this got started.

So how could it be ‘common knowledge’ that Wilson’s wife was CIA, when Wilson himself was just one DC ex-diplomat and an occasional talking head on TV? Think about it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think the whole argument is just ridiculous on its face when you step back and look at it.

I think what May’s comment probably shows is that after Wilson came forward, his enemies started trashing him pretty widely. Even I knew there was a big whispering campaign against him among the neo-cons. Part of that was apparently putting out word about his wife. Folks at the White House probably weren’t just talking to reporters but also chatting up fellow Republican insiders and ideological allies. And I suspect one of them mentioned it — even ‘in an offhand manner’ — to May.”


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We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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