By C. Fraser Smith
IF YOU leave aside the war in Iraq and the spread of terrorism, this thing about leaks and presidential adviser Karl Rove is just another inside-the-beltway story.
It's the usual slashing and burning told in the obscure language of Washington politics. Lives and limbs are hanging in the balance, along with the nation's good name, but that's just collateral damage.
News stories about leaked information and reporters protecting sources and special prosecutors float out to the rest of the nation on a turbid sea fathomable only by the wily inside players.
It's a game of distraction and misdirection in which the language of Vietnam has merged with the language of Watergate. What did the president know of this quagmire and when did he know it? Isn't it just a second-class, puffed-up bureaucrat with a sheaf of papers?
Washington analysts are saying this little teapot led the White House to accelerate its nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court and could result in the dismissal of Mr. Rove, the Svengali of GOP politics.
What is happening seems like the slow accretion of damning information that could bring the larger picture into focus. There was the Downing Street memo about trumped-up rationales for war. There were allegations of "twisted" intelligence. Some of it seems to flow from an intelligence success - turned into a failure.
These may or may not be the basic facts:
After a CIA-sponsored mission to the African country of Niger, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat, concluded that Saddam Hussein had not sought to buy uranium from that country for his nuclear weapons program. This was apparently quite true - but discounted in the White House.
In a State of the Union address, President Bush said Iraq's attempt to purchase the nuclear material was a compelling argument for war.
Mr. Wilson fired off a quick rebuttal that was published in The New York Times. George J. Tenet, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the CIA never should have allowed the president to include this argument in his speech. The CIA was, nevertheless, held responsible for the false assertion about Niger.
Out came the long knives. Sometimes, when the stakes are high, the bloodletting instinct subsides. Not in this case.
Mr. Wilson had to be tarred as unreliable or worse. First you ignore the messenger, then you try to bury him.
Help came from Robert Novak, the columnist, who reported that a White House official told him Mr. Wilson's wife recommended her husband for the Niger mission. The columnist wondered why a retired diplomat - who supported Al Gore and John Kerry for president - would have been sent on a mission by the Bush administration. The dramatic answer: His wife, a CIA employee, arranged it. Since then, others have reported that her help came on an earlier assignment to Niger.
Until recently, newspaper stories about this gathering storm have repeated Mr. Novak's disclosure with quickly diminishing context - as if its significance was self-evident.
In the last few days, several reports have offered what the writers assume the White House was trying to get across about Mr. Wilson.
One said the White House suggested his wife had arranged a junket for him. Junkets are bad, aren't they?
Another said the White House was calling the trip "a boondoggle."
A third suggested the Wilsons should be dismissed as a "nepotistic sideshow." Nothing, in other words, that should have risen to the level of official business.
Taking it a step further, as yet another writer did, the conclusion we were meant to draw is this: Mr. Wilson can't find work on his own. He needs help from his wife. He is, therefore, a "girlie man." Enough said.
Maybe the significance was that he had the information and no one else did. No one else used it, at least.
This much seems clear. The essence of Mr. Wilson's report has not been refuted. The daily carnage reports from Baghdad belie the occasional sunny forecasts from the Bush administration. And now there are deadly explosions in Egypt and London.
We wonder if the bombers in Britain and Sharm el-Sheik were shipped there from Iraq.
Might be time for another junket.
C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.
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