Thursday, September 07, 2006

A new light on CIA leak scandal - Evidence indicates 2 courses of action

A new light on CIA leak scandal - Evidence indicates 2 courses of action
By Steve Chapman
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 7, 2006

If Patrick Fitzgerald became a prosecutor to make friends and soak up applause, he made a very bad career decision. The guys who club baby seals have more defenders than he does.

About the only thing liberals and conservatives agree on these days is that the special prosecutor's handling of the Valerie Plame leak investigation has been a travesty. Liberals were appalled that his quest for the truth would force reporters to reveal their sources, and unhappy that Karl Rove got off scot-free. Conservatives took umbrage that his effort to uphold the law extended to charging a White House official, Lewis Libby, merely because he allegedly lied to the FBI.

Last week, the news broke that when columnist Robert Novak identified Plame as a CIA operative, one of his sources was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. This revelation, we are told, destroys the theory that Plame's name was leaked to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for writing a newspaper article criticizing the president.

"The White House, in short, was not engaged in any campaign to `out' Ms. Plame," proclaimed an editorial in The Wall Street Journal. The more liberal Washington Post heartily concurred. The revelation, it said, shows that "one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House--that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame's identity to ruin her career and thus punish Mr. Wilson--is untrue."

But the logic here is the equivalent of saying that because I am chewing gum, I cannot possibly be walking. All the evidence indicates there were two separate courses of action that exposed Plame's identity--one attributable to Armitage and one to people in the White House. That Armitage was guilty of carelessness does not mean Libby is innocent of malice.

Armitage spoke with Novak on July 8, 2003, six days before the column appeared. But according to the indictment, Libby told New York Times reporter Judith Miller about Plame two weeks earlier. He apparently also discussed Plame with Matt Cooper of Time before the Novak column saw print.

Why would Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, bring up Plame's employment with journalists? Maybe because someone thought it was a good way to retaliate against her husband. Fitzgerald has released a copy of Wilson's article that Cheney cut out and decorated with angry questions, including, "Did his wife send him on a junket?"

Armitage's detractors say he could have saved us all a lot of trouble had he fessed up early on. Not so. He did tell his boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told the Justice Department, and he did cooperate with the special prosecutor. Fitzgerald pressed on with the probe because Armitage wasn't the only person who blabbed about Plame.

Why didn't Armitage go public? Because, The New York Times reports, Fitzgerald asked him not to.

Conservatives like William Kristol of The Weekly Standard have called on the president to pardon Libby, arguing that the special prosecutor was "totally out of control--he had to indict someone." They say that if Fitzgerald had a good case, he would have indicted Libby for violating the federal law protecting undercover agents, not for simply lying to investigators.

But people get indicted all the time for lying, even if they aren't charged with the crime that was being investigated. Martha Stewart is proof of that. So are several major Watergate conspirators who went to prison. Why does Libby deserve different?

Conservatives are not alone, though, in sniping at Fitzgerald. The New York Times, which once demanded a thorough investigation, now complains this one has taken too long. Of course it would have gone quicker if The New York Times had not refused to cooperate by claiming Judith Miller had no obligation to testify. The Times lost that battle and Miller did testify, but only after a year's delay.

It will take a trial to establish Libby's criminal guilt or innocence. But the bulk of the evidence indicates that people high up in the White House did seek to punish Wilson by unmasking his wife, and that the vice president's chief of staff did his best to conceal this effort from the special prosecutor.

For that evidence, we should thank the much-maligned Fitzgerald, whose sole sin is doing his job conscientiously. But the only people who are grateful are those who put truth and accountability above their own narrow interests. And in Washington, that may be a party of one.


Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board. E-mail


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