As the Bush White House juggles two political grenades–the Wilson leak and the MIA WMDs–there are two questions: can Bush and his gang prevent detonations, and can the Democrats make it difficult for Bush to defuse these controversies and escape without offering full explanations?
Within the political-media community of Washington, a consensus is emerging: the Wilson leak story has lost steam. That’s to be expected. The burst of attention that occurred several weeks ago followed the surprising disclosure that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak in a July 14 Robert Novak column that identified the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a CIA operative working in the field of weapons counterproliferation. Wilson had criticized the Bush administration’s Iraq policy–particularly its use of the allegation that Iraq had been uranium shopping in Iraq–and the leak, attributed by Novak to two “senior administration officials,” appeared to have been meant to punish or discredit Wilson. It may have violated a federal law against naming covert government officers.
Once the initial shock passed–the CIA and the White House in a catfight!–the story shifted to a process matter: the conduct of the investigation. A dozen or so FBI agents are gumshoeing away, examining documents, holding interviews. This is not the traditional stuff of front-page headlines. The investigation has become a part of the routine agenda of Washington. As such, it is no longer fodder for the talking-head echo chamber of the cable news networks. And the White House has done a good job of turning down the volume. There have been no articles about Bush aides hiring lawyers. (I’ve asked around and so far have only heard that Novak has retained an attorney.) And there have been no stories about worry or paranoia at the White House.
Several Washington reporters to whom I have spoken recently have asked, what can the Democrats do to keep the Wilson leak story alive? This sort of question–common in the capital–is a reflection of the structural bias of the press corps. It is easy for reporters to cover an issue if the Ds and the Rs are tussling over it. But if there is no conflict or no holy-shit new developments, reporters move on. So the responsibility for keeping a story oxygenated often falls to the political opposition, not the media.
The Democrats are trying in the Wilson affair. Senator Chuck Schumer has been criticizing the Justice Department investigation–particularly the investigators’ decisions to grant the White House a 12-hour delay before White House officials had to turn over requested documents. And on October 24, other Democratic senators held a faux hearing in a room in the Capitol. At this event, Senator Tom Daschle, the minority leader, and several of his Democratic colleagues questioned three former CIA officials about the Wilson business. It was a panel discussion set up to look like a hearing. “Testifying” before the senators were Vincent Cannistraro, a onetime senior official at the CIA Counterterrorism Center, Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst who went through training with Valerie Wilson (nee Plame), and James Marcinkowski, a former CIA clandestine officer.