T he scandal known in Washington, DC as "The Leak" is not an easy story to understand. Most people I have talked to have only a vague sense of the basic facts: that the Bush administration tried to get revenge against a diplomat critical of its war effort by publicly revealing that his wife was an undercover CIA agent.
But this summary leaves key questions unanswered. Why would the White House go after one of the government’s own CIA agents? Why does this seemingly obscure violation really matter? What has happened since the scandal broke in the early fall?
Getting to the bottom of these questions is important because "The Leak" remains one of the most revealing glimpses available into the darker side of how the Bush administration works—how it has propagated a fraudulent case for war, and launched a fiercely partisan attack on dissenting viewpoints. It is also important because the mainstream media has proved distressingly acquiescent as the White House has worked to "suffocate the story."
If you didn’t really understand the scandal before, it is worth taking another look.
In February 2002, at the request of Vice President Dick Cheney, the CIA sent former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Central Africa to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium in Niger in the late 1990s. Wilson found that the allegations were bogus and delivered a detailed report saying so to his superiors.
This report was either misplaced or ignored. The idea that Iraq might have nuclear capabilities was too politically convenient to be dropped by an Administration pushing for war. The uranium charges made their way into Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address. When later exposed, they became the famous "16 words" emblematic of the White House’s use of faulty intelligence to sell its invasion of Iraq.
Joseph Wilson stayed quiet through most of the controversy. However, after senior administration officials persisted in denying that they had prior knowledge that the intelligence about Niger was bad, Wilson published a July 6 op-ed in the New York Times discussing his trip and his report. "I gave them months to correct the record," Wilson explained to New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, referring to the White House, "but they kept on lying."
The Bush administration was furious at Wilson’s whistle-blowing. Its operatives set out to paint the ambassador as incompetent and politically motivated. Ed Gillespie, the head of the Republican National Committee, attacked Wilson as a partisan Democrat because he had contributed funds to Al Gore’s 2000 election campaign. Gillespie neglected to mention that Wilson had also donated to George W. Bush’s campaign, which he briefly supported. Moreover, Wilson had served George Bush Sr. as a special envoy to Iraq before the first Gulf War, earning high praise from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Far worse than Gillespie’s distortions, two "senior administration officials" provided a half dozen journalists with the information that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent working on weapons of mass destruction. Only one of the journalists, conservative columnist Robert Novak, reported this fact, noting in his July 14 dispatch that the two sources "told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate."
A scandal was born. Revealing the identity of an undercover intelligence operative is a federal crime, specifically prohibited in the 1982 Identities Protection Act. Two senior administration officials are guilty.
But why would the White House make the information about Wilson’s wife part of their smear campaign? One implication is that, by revealing Plame’s identity, they were trying to suggest that Wilson was not really qualified to investigate the Niger question and that he was only selected because of his personal relationship with someone at the CIA. Another explanation is that the senior officials were motivated by spite alone—that they were looking for any way possible to hurt Wilson and they knew that damaging his wife’s career would accomplish this.
A third possibility is that the officials believed that going after a CIA agent might send an especially powerful signal to an important target audience: disgruntled intelligence officers. It is well known that many intelligence analysts are furious about how unverified reports about Saddam’s weapons were "stove-piped" to top administration officials in violation of accepted vetting procedures and then presented to the public as established facts.
After the Wilson op-ed, it is plausible that White House political operatives felt they needed to deliver a message to others with inside information about faulty intelligence.
Supporting this view, retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern contends that the senior officials’ "objective was to create strong disincentive for those who might be tempted to follow the courageous example set by Joseph Wilson in citing the president’s own words to show that our country went to war on a lie."
Whatever the combination of reasons, the outing of Valerie Plame as part of a personal attack on a critic of the Administration is a shocking offense.
The controversy first gained widespread attention in the last days of September, after the Washington Post reported that an official investigation was underway. The mainstream media attention proved short-lived, however.
In the days after the Post published its scoop, several conservatives scrambled to belittle the story’s significance. For his part, Robert Novak, the columnist who first reported the damaging information leaked to him by two "senior administration officials," tried to minimize the affair by forwarding the incorrect assertion that Plame was merely a pencil-pushing "analyst" and not really a sensitive operative.
Plame, in fact, worked undercover with a network that monitored the international transfer of illegal weaponry. According to retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern, Plame’s outing will "burn her entire network of agents reporting on weapons of mass destruction, put those agents in serious jeopardy and destroy her ability at the peak of her career to address this top-priority issue."
In spite of the pundits’ efforts, focus on the scandal intensified for a brief period. Faced with growing public pressure, President Bush professed deep concern about catching the criminal in his White House. At the same time, he made shrugging comments foreshadowing the investigation’s failure. "I don’t know whether we are going to find out the senior administration official," he said. "This is a large Administration and there are a lot of senior administration officials, and I don’t have any idea."
With some Democrats calling for an independent counsel to investigate, Washington conservatives were put in an odd situation. Even while many denied the seriousness of the story, these partisans also had to argue that the Administration would take the investigation of its own leak very seriously indeed, precluding the necessity of an outside investigator. Who, in particular, did they claim would be the best person to conduct an honest, thorough, and impartial investigation of the Bush administration’s crimes? John Ashcroft.
President Bush said, "I am absolutely confident the Justice Department will do a good job." Many other observers, however, argued that the deep connections between Ashcroft and key White House personnel like Karl Rove presents a clear conflict of interests.
Furthermore, Senator Charles Schumer noted that the Department of Justice made errors in the critical first week of the investigation. Attorneys waited four days between opening their investigation and asking the White House to preserve all relevant evidence, creating a window in which significant evidence could have been destroyed.
While mainstream press interest in the affair exploded in the early fall, coverage faded fast, in part, no doubt, because the outing of the CIA agent does not reduce well into a 15-second summary. A Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers shows that the name Valerie Plame was mentioned in 266 articles in October, most in the first weeks after the scandal broke. But by November, the story had nearly vanished, with only 10 articles covering the scandal the whole month.
It appeared, moreover, that the Bush administration was speeding the process. The Financial Times writes, "While allowing the official investigation into the leak to progress, the White House has done an extraordinarily effective job of suffocating the story," refusing to provide the press with the type of updates that the Clinton administration regularly made available during the Whitewater investigation. "We have let the earth-movers roll in over this one," one senior White House official told the Times on the condition of anonymity.
In the last days of 2003, new developments in the Plame investigation attracted some fresh media attention to the case, but also highlighted the need for continued public pressure. In a positive twist, Ashcroft relented to criticism and disqualified himself from involvement in the investigation. Instead, a Justice Department deputy will oversee the activity of a new "special counsel," U.S. attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
The New York Times applauded the move in a December 21 editorial, "The Right Thing, At Last." Others were more skeptical, however. Howard Dean argued that the move was "too little, too late." Ray McGovern added that the "maneuver should not obscure the fact that in naming Fitzgerald, who remains under the authority of Ashcroft’s deputy, the Bush Administration has rejected the only appropriate course—naming a complete outsider to be special counsel."
The Times noted an "eggreiously long delay," questioned whether the Justice Department "will give Mr. Fitzgerald true operational independence," and noted, "we may never know what damage was caused" by two months of Ashcroft stonewalling.
It remains to be seen whether the new special investigator will be able or willing to reconstruct an effictive investigation. But regardless of whether the special counsel maintains the previous level of secrecy, the public deserves critical press coverage of a story the White House would like to rebury.
Mark Engler is a writer and activist based in New York City. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.