July 14, 2005
Did White House political adviser Karl Rove deliberately reveal the identity of an undercover CIA operative? Only two people can answer that question, and neither one is talking: Rove himself and special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating the question.
Sooner or later, we probably will get an answer. Fitzgerald has been so aggressive in this investigation -- to the point of jailing a New York Times reporter who refused to reveal her confidential sources -- that indictments are reasonably likely.
In the meantime, it's important to look beyond the immediate political spectacle in Washington -- White House spokesman Scott McClellan finally confronted by reporters who feel abused and lied to -- to the reason Rove was talking to a reporter about ex-diplomat Joseph Wilson at all.
The real issue, more serious and less glitzy than whether Bush will stand by his political adviser, is the extraordinary efforts the Bush administration made to protect a case for war in Iraq from all contradictory evidence -- in effect, as the British spymaster Sir Richard Dearlove put it, to "fix" the facts and intelligence so they would support a decision already made.
Enter Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction. As Wilson tells it, a question arose at the CIA early in 2002, prompted by an inquiry from Vice President Dick Cheney's office, about reports that Iraq had purchased uranium for nuclear weapons from the African country of Niger, where Wilson previously had served. When someone was needed to travel to Niger, Plame apparently told her superiors that her husband had good contacts there. CIA officials talked with Wilson and decided he should be the one to make the trip.
In late February of 2002 Wilson made the trip, talked with numerous people in Niger, including the U.S. ambassador, and concluded there was nothing to reports of an Iraq-Niger connection. He briefed officials at both the CIA and State Department on his conclusions.
In January 2003, however, President Bush asserted an Iraq-Africa uranium connection in his State of the Union message. Subsequently, it turned out that Bush was indeed referring to Niger. The Niger-Iraq connection became one of the pillars in Bush's case for war with Iraq.
After the start of the war, Wilson wrote a lengthy op-ed piece for the New York Times laying out the facts of his trip and saying he had "little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
Five days later, Rove told Time reporter Matt Cooper he should "not get too far out on Wilson." His trip to Niger, Rove said, wasn't approved by Cheney or CIA Director George Tenet. Cooper wrote to his boss, "It was, KR said, wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on wmd issues who authorized the trip."
Three days later, columnist Robert Novak identified Plame as a CIA operative and said two "senior administration officials" told him Plame suggested sending her husband. About the same time, a confidential source also told a Washington Post reporter that the trip was a "boondoggle" arranged by Plame.
This is a classic Rove technique: undercut a critic by planting the notion that he was off to Africa on a lark arranged by his wife. Rove's history as a rough political player is well-documented. But this wasn't about a political campaign; this was about a serious question of national security and the justification for a difficult war.
It also wasn't true. On July 22, Newsday reported that a "senior intelligence officer confirmed that Plame was a directorate of operations undercover officer who worked 'alongside' the operations officers who asked her husband to travel to Niger. But he said she did not recommend her husband to undertake the Niger assignment." This senior intelligence officer also told Newsday that it was incorrect to suggest " 'she was the one who was cooking this up.' " Besides, he said, " 'We paid his airfare. But to go to Niger is not exactly a benefit. Most people you'd have to pay big bucks to go there.' " The CIA always said Plame did not recommend her husband.
It is instructive to remember that the investigation into who revealed Plame's identity was initiated by Tenet, not by administration critics. Remember also that Wilson was correct; ultimately the White House had to retract Bush's State of the Union statement on the Niger connection.
In addition to discrediting critics of the Niger connection, the Bush administration, through the actions of John Bolton -- now nominee to be U.N. ambassador -- sought to intimidate intelligence analysts who objected to conclusions about Iraq's WMD, and to get a U.N. chemical weapons official fired so he wouldn't be able to send inspectors back to Iraq, where they might disprove more of the case for war.
In the scheme of things, whether Rove revealed Plame's identity, deliberately or not, matters less than actions by Rove, Bolton, Cheney and others to phony up a case for war that has gone badly, has cost thousands of lives plus hundreds of billions of dollars, and has, a majority of Americans now believe, left the United States less safe from terrorism rather than more.
That's the indictment which should matter most.