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

Thursday, August 18, 2005 / Comment & analysis / Comment - What Watergate could teach the White House

By Marvin Kalb
Published: August 17 2005 19:59 | Last updated: August 17 2005 19:59

Somebody is lying. So wrote Terry Neal, a Washington Post reporter, on July 25 2005. He was writing about one of the strangest stories to engulf the White House since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. It is the story of an official investigation into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to the media. According to a 1982 law, that kind of leak would be illegal. Two prominent names have emerged in the investigation of the leak – Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff, and Lewis Libby, vice-president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.

The investigation appears now to be heading towards rapid conclusion. If the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, finds that either Mr Rove or Mr Libby or both violated the law, they would face criminal charges, and the Bush administration would find itself enmeshed in a scandal of dimensions that are already being compared to the Nixon-era Watergate scandal.

According to recent opinion polls, including an August 7 poll in Newsweek magazine, the American people are increasingly of the view that Mr Rove, whom Mr Bush described as the “architect” of his 2004 re-election, may be guilty of unethical or illegal behaviour in connection with the leak.

Much is still not known about Mr Fitzgerald’s investigation – he has insisted on absolute secrecy – but what is known suggests that the Bush administration is engaged in a two-front war: one to cover up its blunders in the lead-up to the Iraq war based on the mistaken assumption that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed “weapons of mass destruction”, and the other to protect the leaker. The two fronts are now unmistakeably linked.

It became painfully clear in the war’s aftermath that Iraq had no such weapons and that Mr Bush’s justification for war was wrong. Therefore, it was “no accident”, as the Soviets used to say, that when Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador, wrote a comment article in the New York Times on July 6 2003 accusing the administration of “twisting” intelligence to justify the war, the White House fumed – and struck back. Within days stories began to appear in the media criticising and belittling Mr Wilson, and then, oddly, outing Valerie Plame, his CIA wife, by name. The White House later vigorously denied that Mr Rove was “involved” in any way.

In Washington the outing of a CIA operative is no trifling matter, no ­partisan matter either, and within a few months, the justice department appointed a public prosecutor. Mr ­Fitzgerald, a hard-nosed prosecutor from Chicago, plunged into a series of interviews with senior officials, including the president and vice-president. Mr Rove and Mr Libby were also ­interviewed. In a sequence that lawyers saw as highly unusual, Mr Rove was summoned to testify three times before the grand jury. Most unexpected, reporters suggested, for someone uninvolved. Mr Rove was also questioned twice by the FBI.

In recent weeks, speculation has grown that Mr Fitzgerald was investigating not just the identity of the leaker but also more serious charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. What had been, up to then, kept so quiet suddenly surfaced as front page news and cocktail chatter, deeply embarrassing and potentially damaging to the administration. It turned out that Mr Rove and Mr Libby were “involved” in the leaking and the outing, and opinion polls began reflecting growing doubts about the honesty of the Bush administration. An obvious link was being drawn between a security breach, which would have been a problem, and the war in Iraq, which is proving to be a disaster. Complicating the matter, In a show of legalistic machismo, Mr Fitzgerald pursued Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, for refusing to disclose her sources for a story that she never wrote about the Wilson-Plame affair, resulting in Ms Miller’s imprisonment.

A key lesson from the Watergate scandal is that sometimes a cover-up can be worse than the crime. In this case, a usually media-savvy White House, stung by criticism of its justification for war, lashed out at one critic and then took the inexplicable step of orchestrating the outing of his CIA wife, unintentionally triggering a chain of events.

It would have been so much better if the White House had simply acknowledged its blunder – and apologised. The American people would almost surely have “understood”.

The writer, co-author of The Media and the War on Terrorism, is senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government