In one (very limited) respect, indictments do not matter in the Plame/CIA leak case. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s probe has already revealed that Bush aides–including Karl Rove, the President’s über-strategist, and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff–engaged in wrongdoing that violated Bush’s purported standards and that the White House did not tell the public the truth about its participation in the leak that outed former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Wilson (sometimes known by her maiden name, Valerie Plame), as an undercover CIA officer. At the least, the Administration’s leak, which appeared in a July 14, 2003, Bob Novak column, ruined the career and perhaps the operations of a covert public servant who had spent years working to thwart the spread of weapons of mass destruction; it may also have threatened other CIA operatives, assets and front groups involved in anti-WMD endeavors. (The post-leak damage assessment presumably conducted by the CIA has not been leaked.) And despite the claims of Rove’s attorney that a kindly Rove was merely trying to help journalists report the Joe Wilson story accurately, the leak occurred when the White House was worried that Wilson–who after a secret trip to Niger for the CIA dismissed allegations that Iraq had been seeking weapons-grade uranium there–was a threat to Bush’s justification for the invasion of Iraq. The bottom line: White House aides jeopardized national security in order to undermine a critic.

Over the past two years Bush backers have tried to distract the public from the facts of the case. They have attacked Joseph Wilson for being a–yikes!–Democrat. (Wilson, a career foreign service officer, contributed to Bush’s campaign during the 2000 GOP primaries, to his later regret.) They have claimed that Valerie Wilson was not really undercover. (The CIA has indicated she was.) Some have dismissed the Fitzgerald investigation as yet another desperate act engineered by a hapless Democratic Party with no new ideas. (Fitzgerald, a career prosecutor without a known partisan bent, was appointed by the Ashcroft Justice Department.) A few right-wingers have even accused me of being the first journalist to expose Valerie Wilson’s undercover status. (This conspiracy theory is too convoluted and ridiculous to explicate and debunk here.) And some have revived the argument Reaganites deployed during the Iran/contra scandal: that the case criminalizes policy differences. (Are Fitzgerald and the judges who have overseen his probe motivated by policy disagreements with Bush?)

Legal or not, the Plame leak was wrong. And thanks to Fitzgerald’s efforts, it’s now known that Rove discussed Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment status–which was classified–with at least two reporters (Novak and Time‘s Matt Cooper) and that Libby did the same with two journalists (Cooper and the New York Times‘s Judith Miller). The leak was either a deliberate and malicious act or a careless one in which spin-driven officials cavalierly spread sensitive information without checking to see if it was classified. The disclosures about Rove and Libby prove that the White House misled the public when it claimed in 2003 that neither man was “involved” in the leak. (Rove apparently confirmed the leak for Novak.) These revelations also show that Bush was not serious when he said then that he would take “appropriate action” against any official who “leaked classified information.” It’s now clear that Rove and Libby did leak such information. Hiding behind the excuse that Fitzgerald’s probe was still under way, Bush in recent months has refused to explain his position or say anything about the conduct of his underlings. He did shift his standards in July, when he declared that only an aide convicted of a crime would be booted–a statement out of sync with his 2000 campaign vow to change the culture of Washington: “In my Administration, we will ask not only what is legal but what is right, not what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves.”

The Plame case has not only illuminated the slippery morals of the Bush crowd and the hypocrisy of right-wing “patriots” willing to sacrifice Valerie Wilson and her work to protect the White House. It also–without indictments–exposed profound troubles at the Times. The curious case of reporter Judith Miller–not adequately explained in the paper’s recent articles–raises disturbing questions about the Times. How could the Times have allowed Miller, whose errant reporting on Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs greased the path to war, to operate without standard editorial supervision, especially when she cut a deal with Libby to misleadingly characterize him as an anonymous “former Hill staffer” to camouflage the attack on Joseph Wilson? This violated Times policy on anonymous sourcing. Where’s the disciplinary action? And why did the paper not explain how Miller came to obtain a security clearance from the Administration she was tasked to cover? Also, how is it possible that Miller cannot recall which sources had told her about Valerie Plame, days before Plame was outed and became big news? She is now severely tainted, and the paper has not remedied the problems she has caused it.

Indictments aside, the Plame case has discredited the White House. Bush aides self-servingly leaked information that potentially damaged the nation. And then the White House, and perhaps Bush himself, lied to the public about it. One doesn’t need indictments–or convictions–to see this case as a clear representation of the way Bush and his crew do business.