Scott McClellan, White House press secretary, falsely accused me of rigging the truth. But before we get to that, the news of the day: the Bush administration is responding ridiculously to reports that the CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether White House officials revealed the identity of an undercover CIA officer to punish or discredit an administration critic.
Regular readers of this column will remember that back in July conservative columnist Bob Novak wrote a piece in which he reported that two “senior administration officials” had told him that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (who had publicly challenged the White House’s claim that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Niger), was employed by the CIA and worked on counter-proliferation matters. Novak printed her name. The leakers apparently were trying to suggest that Wilson–who had been sent by the CIA to check out the Niger allegations and who concluded that there was nothing to them–had not been chosen for the job on merit. Wilson said that he considered the leak–which blew his wife’s cover and perhaps undermined national security–was a message from the White House to others who might speak out against it: don’t cross us, or we’ll come after you and your family.
To brag a bit, I was the first journalist to report that the Novak leak was evidence of a possible White House crime. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, it is a felony for an official who possesses classified information to reveal the identity of a covert officer. The punishment is up to ten years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $50,000. (This law was championed by George H.W. Bush, former CIA director and father of W.) This past weekend, MSNBC.com revealed that the CIA has requested that the Justice Department investigate the anti-Wilson leak. And The Washington Post, citing an unnamed senior administration official, reported that “two top White House officials” had called at least six Washington journalists in an effort to disclose the identity and secret occupation of Wilson’s wife. That makes it seem as if there was a White House campaign targeting the Wilsons. (Wilson, by the way, is a winner of the new Ron Ridenhour Award, which is given in honor of the My Lai whistleblower and journalist.)
This is trouble for the White House. And that was evident today at McClellan’s daily briefing for reporters. He was repeatedly asked what Bush intended to do to get to the bottom of this ugly episode. In essence, McClellan’s answer was, nothing. Over and over, McClellan said the Justice Department, not the White House, was the “appropriate agency” to investigate. And he said that anyone with information on this matter should contact the Justice Department–not the president. But shouldn’t the president be taking steps on his own? the reporters wondered. Every time that query was placed in front of McClellan, he batted it away with a stock reply, noting that the White House had no information beyond the media reports–which were based on anonymous sources–to “suggest White House involvement” in the Wilson leak. “Are we supposed to chase down every anonymous report in the newspaper?” McClellan asked. And several times, he challenged his inquisitors, “Do you have any specific information to bring to my attention suggesting White House involvement?”