The publication of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s book, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity, affords a fresh opportunity to consider how George W. Bush has dodged accountability for a White House scandal.
It was back in July that conservative columnist Robert Novak identified Wilson’s wife, Valerie, as a CIA operative specializing in weapons counterproliferation. Novak attributed this information to “two senior administration officials.” At the time, Wilson, a prominent critic of the war, was causing trouble for the White House, having revealed that in February 2002 he traveled to Niger for the CIA and essentially debunked the allegation that Iraq had been shopping for uranium there. However, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush had relied on this charge to suggest that Iraq was close to developing nuclear weapons. Wilson’s disclosure blew a hole in the Bush case for war and forced the White House to acknowledge that the President had used a spurious allegation, easy to disprove, based on forged documents.
The Novak column–which ruined Valerie Wilson’s undercover career and perhaps endangered her and her contacts–seemed like thuggish payback. Or an attempt to discredit Wilson’s trip to Niger as a junket arranged by his wife. (It wasn’t.) Or a message to others: Don’t cross this Administration. Or all of the above. But in blowing her cover, the Bush henchmen may also have violated a federal law making it a felony for a government official to reveal the identity of a covert officer. Two days after the Novak piece appeared, I was the first reporter to note that the Wilson leak was evidence of a possible White House crime; but it was not until September, when the news broke that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the White House, that the leak story went big-time.
Since then, the Administration has hidden behind the ongoing criminal investigation, which, after the recusal of Attorney General John Ashcroft, is now in the hands of Patrick Fitzgerald, the US Attorney in Chicago. But the question remains: Why has Bush taken a lackadaisical attitude toward a leak that compromised national security and possibly violated the law? At the time of the leak, he and his White House did nothing to denounce or identify the guilty. In fact, evidence indicates that White House officials encouraged other reporters to spread the leak further. And once the leak became a criminal matter, Bush did no more than tell White House officials to cooperate with the inquiry. He could have called them in, asked them point-blank if they’d passed information to Novak, and then informed the public of what he’d found. (In his book, Wilson, offering no proof, fingers I. Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and Elliott Abrams, a National Security Council aide, as the leading suspects; the New York Daily News, quoting an “inside source,” reports that the probe is focusing on Libby.)
Bush also could have asked Karl Rove if it was true, as Wilson maintains, that Rove told Hardball host Chris Matthews, “Wilson’s wife is fair game.” Shouldn’t Bush be curious about whether this is the way his lieutenants do business? Unless, of course, he already knows. Wilson says he’s troubled by the slow pace of the inquiry: “I’m appalled that [the investigators] haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet, and I have to conclude that the reason is that Administration officials in the know are simply stonewalling.”
This is not only about whether a crime has been committed. It’s about whether the White House used Soprano-style tactics, disregarded national security and tried to punish a critic and intimidate other critics. The federal investigation might not provide answers. Even a vigorous Justice Department probe could end up not unearthing enough evidence to justify a prosecution; the law here is rather narrow. And if no prosecution materializes, Fitzgerald will be under no obligation to report what his inquiry does uncover. (Some Democratic senators have considered calling for a special counsel-like report, but no drumbeat has yet been heard.) The criminal investigation aside, Bush bears ultimate responsibility for seeing that the Wilson leak is addressed and for sending a clear message that such dirty tricks will not be tolerated. Wilson’s book is a sharp reminder that Bush has failed to do this and failed in his promise of leading a White House of honor and integrity.