“I want to know.” So says George W. Bush now, speaking about the source of the leak that revealed that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson is a CIA operative. But when conservative columnist Robert Novak published an article on July 14 citing “senior administration officials” that blew the cover of Valerie Wilson (née Plame), Bush showed no interest in finding out anything about the leak–a leak that may have undermined national security (she was reportedly a clandestine officer working on weapons counterproliferation); a leak that appeared to be aimed at punishing or discrediting Wilson, who had challenged White House Iraq policy, especially its prewar use of the claim that Saddam Hussein had been shopping for uranium in Africa. (Writing for The Nation and its website on July 16, I was first to report that the Novak column was evidence of a possible White House crime.)
It was only after the CIA requested, two months later, that the Justice Department investigate the anti-Wilson leak that Bush and the White House paid public attention to it. They had to–the probe was on the front page. And the Washington Post, quoting a “senior administration official,” reported that “two top White House officials” had contacted at least six journalists, trying to get them to run with the leak. Still, at this point Bush, according to press secretary Scott McClellan, elected not to whistle his staff into his office and demand they tell him if they were involved in the leak. He wants to know–but he’ll leave the inquiry to John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, not a special counsel.
What does Bush want to know? The Wilson matter is not only about a possible criminal leak. It may well turn out that under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act–which makes it a crime for someone with access to classified information to reveal the identity of a covert officer–the leakers are not open to prosecution. For instance, the leakers might have informally learned of Valerie Wilson’s identity and not realized she was or had been under cover. But that’s a matter for independent-minded investigators to determine, not Bush-friendly TV pundits who cry that they see no scandal here.
Criminality, however, is not the sole issue. The early evidence suggests that the White House–whether directly behind the leak or not–did try to exploit it. McClellan has claimed that the White House and the President did not respond to the Novak column because they do not “chase down every anonymous report in the newspaper.” Even after Time magazine (three days after the Novak column) reported that “some government officials” had told it that Valerie Wilson was a CIA counterproliferation officer and Newsday (five days later) said that “intelligence officials” had confirmed her secret employment at the CIA, the White House took no steps to deal with the leak. Not that it hadn’t noticed. NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell told Newsweek that following the Novak column’s appearance, White House officials were touting it. And about that time Karl Rove had a private conversation with Hardball host Chris Matthews in which Rove either said Wilson’s wife was “fair game” or that it was reasonable for the press to look at Valerie Wilson’s position. (The details are in dispute, and Matthews won’t talk.)
The White House, it seems, was not ignoring the leak because of its anonymous origins, as McClellan suggested; it was pushing the story–amplifying the leak rather than containing it. That may not be a crime. But it is an ugly act–especially for an Administration that claims to operate by the highest ethical standards and claims to be vehemently opposed to leaking. But the White House won’t discuss that part of the scandal. When reporters questioned McClellan about the conversation between Matthews and Rove, he replied, “The subject of this investigation is whether someone leaked classified information…. Some see this as a political opportunity to attack the White House.” These unnamed parties, he complained, are “moving the goal post and talking about issues that are not the subject of the investigation.”
What, exactly, is wrong with that? It’s legitimate to ask if the patriots in the White House eagerly exploited a leak that potentially harmed national security. That may be where Rove and the Gang are most vulnerable–politically, if not legally. “We welcome a good, honest, straightforward debate,” says McClellan. “We welcome those who differ with our views.” But does his definition of “welcome” include orchestrating or abetting the destruction of the career of someone married to a White House critic? The public–and the Wilson family–deserve straightforward answers, not platitudes, on what happened before and after that leak.