The Wilson Affair

In the context of the collapse of every explanation for the war in Iraq (other than the obvious strategic ones which were never expressed by the administration or discussed in the media), the looting of Iraq, the looting of this country, and the peril we find ourselves in, the outing of Joseph Wilson’s wife certainly should have been a minor matter. And some Republicans, both inside and outside the administration, while fiercely attacking Wilson, have indeed tried to make light of it. The Washington Post, for instance, reports (Dana Milbank and Mike Allen, “Outside Probe of Leaks Is Favored,” Oct. 2): “At the Capitol, aides to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) distributed paper sacks labeled ‘Leak Hyperventilation Bags.’”

But of course neither loosing the attack dogs, nor brushing the matter off has shown the slightest sign of working, and the burgeoning scandal hasn’t been eclipsed by other breaking scandals either — from intelligence failures to a secret $20 million “slush fund” the Pentagon created by padding the budget of the U.S. Special Operations Command, a scandal reported Sept. 28 by the St. Peterburg Times. (“It is unclear what the Pentagon intended to do with the $20-million, or what became of the money.”)

The story broke on July 6, when Joseph Wilson wrote his New York Times op-ed outing the administration on the Niger uranium story. Thanks to those senior officials, Novak then outed Wilson’s wife on July 14th. Why did the administration do this? I include below the most interesting explanation I’ve seen because it indicates how consistent this administration’s actions have been, whether in dealing with enemies abroad or at home. Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst and a founding member of VIPS (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity), writes in a piece first posted at Tompaine.com:

“Was it another preemptive attack, which — like the attack on Iraq — seemed to the White House a good idea at the time? It certainly fits that pattern, inasmuch as little thought seems to have been given to the implications, consequences, and post-attack planning. . . There are, after all, hundreds of people in US intelligence and foreign service circles who know about the lies — the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the non-existent ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Worse still from the White House’s point of view, some are about to retire and escape the constraints that come of being on the inside. And, more often than not, the chicanery that took place can be exposed without divulging classified information.”

David Corn of the Nation magazine reading the Novak column realized that Plame’s outing was a potentially criminal act and soon after wrote “A White House Smear” (July 16). (“This is not only a possible breach of national security; it is a potential violation of law. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, it is a crime for anyone who has access to classified information to disclose intentionally information identifying a covert agent.”) But the story gained no traction (except at the fringes) for almost two and a half months. It’s interesting to look back at Corn’s piece now, not only because he had a fine eye for a story, but because almost the whole story as we now know it was basically in place months ago (as was no less true, for instance, of the fraudulent Niger uranium story, almost all the pieces of which were available well before the war). But the question perhaps shouldn’t be, why wasn’t the Plame story picked up, but why, undealt with, didn’t it go away? And, of course, why now?

Probably the first factor to consider is the individual one. Unlike most significant figures in the Democratic Party (and on endless issues, most of the mainstream media as well), when ex-ambassador Wilson was first ignored and then attacked, he didn’t go silent. Quite the opposite. Obviously angered — as who wouldn’t have been — he grew ever louder. For two and a half months, his voice never rested and his charges only strengthened in the face of an escalating administration smear campaign. He made himself harder to ignore, a brave act.

More important certainly, in the days between the Times op-ed and the Novak column, the administration tried to saddle CIA Director George Tenet with responsibility for those sixteen little words on Niger uranium in the President’s State of the Union speech and then tip him over the side of the already slightly listing ship of state. He was clearly to be the fall guy. And he fell a small way — but only onto a sword he had already carefully blunted. In a subtly crafted, Byzantine statement of “responsibility” on July 11, he implicitly pointed a finger (I won’t say which one, though it’s now quite obvious) at the administration). Then after the Plame outing occurred, he unsheathed a well sharpened knife and, with a request to investigate sent to the Justice Department, stuck it rather elegantly between the administration’s ribs.

As James Pinkerton, conservative columnist for Newsday, commented recently (“Inept CIA Chief Has White House Cornered,” Sept. 30):

“[N]ow Tenet, who bungled the intelligence-gathering on Iraq, is safe in his job. Why? Because if President George W. Bush fired him, it would look as if the White House were retaliating, even cover-upping. And so the CIA chief can sit in his Langley, Va., office, serene and secure, despite his incompetence, as scandal-cancer eats his masters across the Potomac River at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

Job security. In the present market, no one should knock it.

Next, we need to remember that many in the larger intelligence “community” were steaming over their treatment, especially by the Vice-president’s office, as various screws were turned by administration neocons and hawks to try to get the “intelligence” they needed to justify the war they not only wanted but had already decided upon. So, as McGovern indicates, lots of knives inside the national security bureaucracy are now being unsheathed. The operative word, used in a recent Christian Science Monitor report, was undoubtedly “revenge.”

To take the intelligence pulse of the moment, consider, for instance, this comment by Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer, who once trained with Valerie Plame, pulled from a Julian Borger piece in the Guardian (10/2): “I’m a registered Republican and I’m sickened by this,” he added. “I’ve spoken with four colleagues who have since left the agency who worked with her. And they are livid.”

Or check out a livid piece by former agent Jim Marcinkowski in the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times (“Outing a CIA Operative: Simply Outrageous,” Oct. 2). Or for those of you who watched, consider Friday night’s Nightline (10/3) in which four ex-agents (all “registered Republicans”) and a CIA agent still in the field (“Jane Doe”), a voice-altered, Darth-Vader-like blotch on the screen, denounced the Bush administration for outing Plame with the sort of venom that’s usually reserved for shock-jock talk radio.

So — and here, I suspect, may be the true Watergate analogy — you have an intragovernmental fight that’s only beginning, and such internecine battles, once they break into the open, are not only fair game for the media, but provide patriotic cover for criticism. It’s usually not reporters but angry insiders who drive such scandals. Then, of course, you have the opposition party finally beginning to act somewhat oppositional. This is obviously a poll-driven phenomenon — polls being the living, breathing political evidence of who’s vulnerable — and we all know where the polls have been heading in the last months.

Again, the media is generally willing to move to the edge of wherever the mainstream opposition may be (another form of patriotic cover, as Mark Hertsgaard pointed out years ago in On Bended Knee, his book the Age of Reagan media). Of course, for most of the last year — a few marginalized Democrats like Kucinich, Byrd, Dean, and Waxman aside — there was no edge to move to. This, of course, adds up to the very opposite of Profiles in Courage.

Now, our high-handed, unbelievably arrogant, deeply secretive, extremist administration is clearly about to be hoist on its own national security petard and there have to be a lot of people licking their chops. Add to this, the arrogance embedded in the relative openness of the act itself. (It was, after all, meant as a warning, so it wasn’t supposed to be completely hidden.) There have to be lots of people — journalists, administration officials, and those they’ve told (and people have obviously been yakking) — who know fully well where this outing came from.

Although Karl Rove may indeed have been at the other end of at least some of the calls to reporters, suspicions seem to be pointing toward Dick Cheney’s office and his close aide (and fierce neocon) I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. (See, for instance, columnist Justin Raimondo’s recent piece for antiwar.com, “Cheney’s Chief-of-Staff Named as Spy-gate Leaker” — and then check out, Lobe’s fine recent portrait of Cheney and his associates as extremists and the true patrons of the Pentagon neocons, “Cheney’s mask is slipping,” Asia Times online, Oct. 1.)

But none of this, of course, makes sense if you leave out Iraq. Our fundamentalist leaders made a genuine pact with the Devil (and I’m not talking about the Great Satan Saddam here). They sold their souls for a Middle East of their dreams and for control over the great global oil spigot, rolled the dice, had their moment, and now when the Devil’s come to collect, they’ve left themselves no way out. (That’s the real Iraqi “quagmire.”) And so, instead of driving their foes before them, they are being driven; and, in the end, what’s driving them are the acts of resistance of undoubtedly relatively small numbers of increasingly better organized Iraqis — angered urbanites, farmers who have lost kin, Baathist hardliners, embittered, discharged army veterans, Islamicist extremists (both homebred and foreign), unknown numbers of them brutes, thugs, fanatics, and criminals. Remarkably enough — and this is just the truth of the matter — they now hold the fate of the Bush administration in their hands.

The Wilson affair may be minor in itself, but what’s been unleashed around it isn’t, and were it to disappear tomorrow, the new atmosphere would have many other things to attach itself to. It may be that this administration won’t come clean on Valerie Plame. After all, it’s hard to throw one of your own to the dogs when court-time, if not jail time, looms. They’ve already seen what happened when they tried with Tenet.

On the other hand, stonewalling isn’t likely to work either, nor is hanging on to the investigation for dear life. From Danny Schechter’s always valuable news dissector e-bulletin, came the following on October 3:

“What will the FBI find out? It is not altogether reassuring to learn that John Dion is heading the investigation. Dion is widely known in intelligence circles as one who does not feel he can go to the bathroom without first asking the Justice Department for permission. Sadly, we can expect the kind of ‘full and thorough investigation’ that Richard Nixon ordered then-Attorney General John Mitchell to conduct into Watergate.”

But I suspect it’s already too late. Today, Walter Pincus and Mike Allen offered clear evidence in the Washington Post of how the damage is spreading (“Leak of Agent’s Name Causes Exposure of CIA Front Firm,” Oct. 4):

“The leak of a CIA operative’s name has also exposed the identity of a CIA front company, potentially expanding the damage caused by the original disclosure, Bush administration officials said yesterday. The company’s identity, Brewster-Jennings & Associates, became public because it appeared in Federal Election Commission records on a form filled out in 1999 by Valerie Plame, the case officer at the center of the controversy, when she contributed $1,000 to Al Gore’s presidential primary campaign.

“After the name of the company was broadcast yesterday, administration officials confirmed that it was a CIA front….A former diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said yesterday that every foreign intelligence service would run Plame’s name through its databases within hours of its publication to determine if she had visited their country and to reconstruct her activities.”

Pincus and Allen then offer this little preview of events to come:

“Wilson and his wife have hired Washington lawyer Christopher Wolf to represent them in the matter. The couple has directed him to take a preliminary look at claims they might be able to make against people they believe have impugned their character”

Investigations and lawsuits, the bane of any administration’s existence.

But let us of course keep this scandal in perspective. As Ira Chernus wrote for the Commondreams website, posted on Oct. 3, one type of scandal we need to watch out for is

“Scandal Type D: Using one scandal to distract public attention from all the others. What the White House did to Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame was unforgivable. But in the long run, is it really a worse offense than building up our military, and giving it nuclear first-strike capability in space, while ignoring the crying human needs in Iraq, in the U.S., and around the world? Will we be so voyeurstically transfixed by the “official” scandal of the season that we ignore the greater scandals, the ones that may haunt us for decades to come? That would be the greatest scandal of all.”

[This is excerpted from an article that first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

Leave a comment