News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Why The Leak Probe Matters

For all the complexities of the Valerie Plame case, this story is about how easy it was to get into Iraq, and how hard it will be to get out.

By Jonathan Alter

July 25 issue - Like a lot of President Bush's critics, I supported the Iraq war at first. Because of the evidence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction laid out by Colin Powell, I agreed that we needed to disarm Saddam Hussein. I even think it's possible that 25 years from now, historians will conclude that the Iraq war helped accelerate the modernizing of the Middle East, even if it doesn't fully democratize it.

But if that happens, Bush might not get as much credit as he hopes, and not just because most historians, as Richard Nixon liked to say, are liberals. Bush may look bad because his leadership on Iraq has been a fiasco. He didn't plan for it: the early decisions that allowed the insurgency to get going were breathtakingly incompetent. He didn't pay for it: Bush is the first president in history to cut taxes during a war, this one now costing nearly $1 billion a week. And most important of all, he didn't tell the American people the truth about it: taking a nation to war is the most solemn duty of a president, and he'd better make certain there's no alternative and no doubt about the evidence.

Why do I mention this now? Because for all of the complexities of the Valerie Plame case, for all the questions raised about the future of investigative journalism and the fate of the most influential aide to an American president since Louis Howe served Franklin D. Roosevelt 70 years ago, this story is fundamentally about how easy it was to get into Iraq and how hard it will be to get out.

We got in because we "cooked" the intelligence, then hyped it. That's why the "Downing Street Memo" is not a smoking gun but a big "duh." For two years we've known that senior White House officials were determined to, in the words of the British intelligence memo, "fix" the intelligence to suit their policy decisions. When someone crossed them, they would "fix" him, too, as career ambassador Joseph Wilson found when he came back from Africa with a report that threw cold water on the story that Saddam Hussein sought yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Was Plame "fair game," as Karl Rove told Chris Matthews? George H.W. Bush didn't think so. Even after Wilson embarrassed the president publicly, Bush Sr. wrote Wilson—whom he had appointed to various ambassadorial posts—to congratulate him for his service and sympathize with him over the outing of his wife. The old man was head of the CIA in the 1970s and knows the consequences of blowing the identities of covert operatives.

But does his son? A real leader wouldn't hide behind Clintonian legalisms like "I don't want to prejudge." Even if the disclosure was unintentional and no law was broken, Rove's confirmed conduct—talking casually to two reporters without security clearances about a CIA operative—was dangerous and wrong. As GOP congressman turned talk-show host Joe Scarborough puts it, if someone in his old congressional office did what Rove unquestionably did, that someone would have been promptly fired, just as the president promised in this case. Scarborough, no longer obligated to toe the pathetic Republican Party line, says it's totally irrelevant if Joe Wilson is a preening partisan who misled investigators about the role his wife played in recommending his Niger trip. The frantic efforts of the GOP attack machine to change the subject to Wilson shows how scared Republicans are that the master of their universe will be held accountable for Rove's destructive carelessness.

To get an idea of how destructive, I talked to Melissa Mahle, a former CIA covert operative turned author whose career parallels Plame's. She explained what happens when someone's cover is blown. It isn't pretty, especially when, like Plame, you have been under "nonofficial cover" (working for a phony front company or nonprofit), which is more sensitive than "official cover" (pretending to work for another government agency). The GOP's spinners are making it seem that because Plame had a desk job in Langley at the time she was outed, she wasn't truly undercover. As Mahle says, that reflects a total ignorance about the way the CIA works. Being outed doesn't just waste millions of taxpayer dollars; it compromises hundreds of other people in the field you may have worked with in the past.

If Bush isn't a hypocrite on national security, he needs, at a minimum, to yank Rove's security clearance. "Whether you do it [discuss the identity of CIA operatives] intentionally or unintentionally, you have not met the requirements of that security clearance," Mahle told me.

The bigger question is what this scandal does to the CIA's ability to develop essential "humint" (human intelligence). Here's where the Iraq war comes in again. The sooner we beef up our intelligence, the sooner we crack the insurgency and get to bring our troops home. What does it say to the people doing the painstaking work of building those spy networks when the identity of one of their own becomes just another weapon in the partisan wars of Washington? For a smart guy, Karl Rove was awfully stupid.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.


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