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

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Crossing the Cabal - Newsweek National News -

By Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey
Updated: 6:28 p.m. ET Oct. 19, 2005

Oct. 19, 2005 - No question about it. Like all good government scandals, the Valerie Plame affair is complicated and arcane. It’s hard to know who did what and when, or even why it’s important. That’s certainly the most hopeful view inside the White House, where the president’s aides believe the voting public cares far more about gas prices than a leak about a CIA officer.

In practical terms, little has changed at the White House even as the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald seems to be nearing the end of his work. That’s not because staffers are avoiding all thoughts about what might happen to the pivotal figures of Karl Rove (the president’s master tactician) or Lewis (Scooter) Libby (the vice president’s chief of staff and foreign-policy adviser). It’s because there’s too much other stuff happening: from Harriet Miers’s Supreme Court nomination to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and, oh, yes, the unfinished business of Iraq. “These things are out of our control,” said one senior White House official. “There are going to be prosecutions and indictments and investigations. These things we can’t control the nature of or the duration of. What we can control is our agenda.”

In other words, this isn’t the Clinton White House under Ken Starr’s watch. As chief of staff Andy Card told C-Span last week, “It is something that is there, but it is something that we don’t talk about because it would be inappropriate. We all have a job to do.”

That’s fine if Fitzgerald narrowly defines his work to mean the naming of the CIA officer in question. But there’s every sign—at least from the range of witnesses he’s called to the grand jury—that this is a far broader investigation. That suggests it’s not just a matter of law, it’s a matter of motive. One of the most perplexing pieces of the Plame puzzle is the question of why? Why did certain officials feel so passionately about former ambassador Joe Wilson’s comments about uranium in Niger that they would seek to discredit him by targeting his wife?

The answer to that may come from the only real source of dissent inside the administration in this period: Colin Powell’s State Department. It was Powell’s intelligence office that wrote the critical (and classified) memo that detailed why Wilson was sent to Niger and the minor role of his wife in that mission. That report was circulating on Air Force One in the days after Wilson’s op-ed appeared in The New York Times.

For Powell and his staff, the searing experience of the run-up to war and its chaotic aftermath was not about conflict in Baghdad, but conflict in Washington. It was intense, personal and emotional. Their enemy: the vice president’s office and the Pentagon. It was clear at the time how dismal relations were between the State and Defense departments. After all, the Pentagon trashed State’s planning for the postwar period and they openly feuded in their assessments of whether to trust Iraqi exiles or not.

But now, thanks to Powell’s former chief of staff, it’s clear that the problems weren’t just between two warring departments. Larry Wilkerson claims there was “a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, and the Defense secretary of the United States, Donald Rumsfeld, that made decisions that the bureaucracy didn’t know were being made.” Chief among those decisions: to go to war in Iraq. “You have a president who isn’t versed in international affairs and not too much interested in them either,” Wilkerson told an audience at the New America Foundation on Wednesday. “So it’s not too difficult to make decisions in this Oval Office cabal, and decisions often that are the opposite of what you thought were made in the formal process.”

Wilkerson argues that the reason leaders need to be open and honest with their own bureaucracy is because in times of war you need all the help, advice and teamwork you can lay your hands on. Dissent should be welcomed because the dissenters then form part of your team. He also argues that the entire national-security process needs to be overhauled to stop the kind of secrecy and concentration of power that led to the decision to invade Iraq.

But his observations are also directly relevant to the Plame affair. Joe Wilson’s mistake was that he crossed the so-called cabal by saying the administration knew there was nothing to the Niger story even before President George W. Bush cited it in his State of the Union Message in early 2003. Just like Powell’s dissent in the run-up to war, the response inside the administration was personally critical and had a chilling effect on internal debate.

Whether or not you agree with the war, and whether or not Fitzgerald indicts anyone, it’s worth remembering why Joe Wilson was at all important to the White House and the vice president’s office in particular. As the president said in his 2003 State of the Union address, “Sending Americans into battle is the most profound decision a president can make.” The Plame game gets to the heart of how that decision was made—and whether anyone could offer an alternative view and survive with their reputation intact.

Those Plunging Polls
According to the latest Gallup poll, President Bush’s approval ratings have dropped to 39 percent—a 6 point decline over the last month, and a 13 point slide since his Inauguration just 10 months ago. That’s the same number Bill Clinton scored in September 1994, just before his party was kicked out of power in Congress (and George W. Bush swept into the governor’s mansion in Austin.)

Is that just a coincidence or is the mood really similar to 1994? Again according to Gallup, 68 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States. In October 1994, that number was 66 percent (and when the president’s father lost in 1992, it was 68.)

Before Democrats start to chill their champagne, it’s useful to remember what happened last year. Those so-called wrong-track numbers were running at 62 percent after the Abu Ghraib scandal in May; by the time of the presidential election in November, they recovered again to 54 percent.

But even if the numbers say little reliable about what will happen in next year’s midterm congressional elections, they speak volumes about the present political woes of the White House. Bush’s approval ratings have declined so sharply this year that he has lost most of his support among independents (who give him an approval rating of just 32 percent), even as he has held on to the vast majority of Republicans.

If the GOP is going to recover over the next year, its target must be those disillusioned independents. That’s a tough challenge given the state of gas prices. It’s even harder at a time when the White House is focused on rallying its conservative base to rescue Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.


Post a Comment

<< Home