Ah, for a scandal to while away the sticky days of high summer in the capital of the free world. This one has the lot. Featured ingredients include a glamorous CIA agent, a jailed journalist and a scandal-starved Washington press in hot pursuit of dastardly White House shenanigans. At the center of the storm is Karl Rove, George Bush's closest adviser, architect of his election triumphs and attributed with satanic political powers by reporters and frustrated Democrats alike.
At one level, the affair about who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, former diplomat's wife and CIA undercover operative, is utterly baffling. A special prosecutor has been on the case for almost two years, but no one has been indicted; indeed it is not even clear any crime has been committed. The journalist who published the agent's name goes about his business seemingly without a care in the world, but another reporter who never wrote a word about Ms Plame languishes in a suburban Washington jail for refusing to divulge her source for the same information. For once in a city where everyone claims to have the inside track, no one is sure what is going on.
This tacky, third-rate leak that is starting to scar the President's second term springs from the great deception executed in his first term, luring the US into a war that 60 per cent of Americans now believe was misconceived.
That is the true scandal, which has yet to be properly explained.
But in another way, everything is blindingly simple. The Plame leak may not be a scandal in itself. Unquestionably, it is a dirty outgrowth of a real Washington scandal for which no one has been held accountable: the misuse and distortion of prewar intelligence about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, that the US and Britain used to justify their unprovoked invasion of Iraq.
The story begins back in late 2001, when Italian intelligence apparently stumbled upon evidence that Saddam had been trying to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger, a material for the production of enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. Vice-President Dick Cheney urged the CIA to look into the allegations.
The agency decided to send former ambassador Joseph Wilson, an Africa hand with good contacts in Niger. He also happened to be married to Ms Plame, a CIA operative who suggested to her bosses that her husband might be the perfect person for the job. During an eight-day stay in February 2002, Mr Wilson found nothing to support the charges, and in early March that year told as much to the CIA, whose report was sent to the White House.
But the Bush administration was bent on war. Again and again, the President and his advisers warned of how they could not wait for the "smoking gun that could be a mushroom cloud". Swayed by the scaremongering, Congress voted in October 2002 to give the administration carte blanche to use force against Saddam.
By this time, the CIA and State Department intelligence had major doubts about the nuclear claims, but Mr Bush plunged on regardless. To Mr Wilson's amazement, the President uttered the notorious claim in his January 2003 State of the Union address, that British intelligence has learned that Saddam had "recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa". Advised that the Niger claim was highly dubious by his own intelligence services and State Department, President Bush decided to use it anyway, sourcing it to London. Shortly afterwards, the original documents discovered in Italy were revealed as blatant fakes.
But by then the invasion was all but under way, and Mr Cheney maintained on its very eve that Saddam had "reconstituted" nuclear weapons.
The dictator was duly toppled, but no nuclear weapons or ongoing nuclear program were found, nor any WMD. On both sides of the Atlantic, questions grew, and finally an exasperated Mr Wilson went public.
In a New York Times op-ed piece on 6 July 2003, entitled "What I didn't find in Africa", he accused the Bush team of distorting intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat. The impact was huge. This was a serious and credible critic, not a politician with an agenda, but a career ambassador who had served under the first President George Bush and had on occasion even voted Republican. An angry and embarrassed White House admitted that the yellowcake claim should not have appeared in the State of the Union address.
And in its fury, it sought revenge by diminishing the stature of Mr Wilson.
Thus began the Plame affair. The White House was out to discredit Mr Wilson and minimize the importance of his mission, and did so in a whispering campaign. In the next few days, Mr Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Mr Cheney's powerful chief of staff, talked to various journalists, including Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and the conservative columnist Robert Novak.
Their message was plain: Mr Wilson had not been sent by Mr Cheney, but by low-level CIA people at the urging of his wife. The report had never reached the desk of anyone who really mattered, they said. Mr Wilson himself was just a Democrat with a grudge.
The onslaught also served the purposes of the White House hawks' running bureaucratic war with more skeptical CIA analysts, who had no time for Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile then the darling of Mr Cheney and the Pentagon, who was the source of much "information" about Saddam's WMD capabilities.
Before the war, the CIA had come under fierce pressure from the Vice-President's office to come up with the scariest assessment possible of the threat posed by Iraq. Thus the Wilson article could be construed as an "I-told-you-so" CIA-inspired counterstrike. On 14 July, Mr Novak's column appeared, identifying Ms Plame by both name and job. The CIA was furious at what seemed a clear breach of the 1982 law which makes it a crime to deliberately disclose the name of a cover agent. Thus special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald launched the investigation which now laps at the innermost citadels of the White House.
From the outset, Mr Rove was a prime suspect. He was said to have told reporters that Ms Plame was "fair game". But the White House adamantly denied Mr Bush's adviser was the leaker and the affair soon faded. But Mr Fitzgerald was not to be deterred, and turned up the pressure on the reporters involved in the case to divulge their sources. Some made deals, among them, apparently, Mr Novak. By contrast, Judith Miller of The New York Times held out. She is now an inmate at the federal detention center in Alexandria, Virginia.
But Mr Cooper - or rather his employers at Time magazine - folded. It quickly transpired that he had talked to Mr Rove and Mr Libby. The former, it seems, did not identify Mr Wilson's wife by name, but confirmed that she was a CIA employee "working in WMD". Suddenly, Scott McClellan, the hapless White House spokesman, started to sound like Ron Ziegler, his counterpart of three decades ago who had to explain away the "third-rate burglary" that would bring down President Richard Nixon.
No one is suggesting Mr Bush is involved, but the previous assertions of Mr Rove's innocence are clearly "inoperative", to borrow an old Zieglerism. And would the Bush crowd go the "limited, moderated hangout route" taken by their Nixonian forbears, admitting small errors to deflect attention from genuinely criminal behavior?
As Democrats bayed for Mr Rove's head, and Mr McClellan went into hedgehog mode, Mr Bush subtly shifted his defense. A year ago he was promising to "take care of" individuals involved with the leak. On Monday, anxious to protect the aide whose skills helped win him the White House, the President declared that only a person who had committed a criminal offence would be dismissed.
The difference is crucial. On the basis of what has thus far been established, no crime may have been committed under the 1982 Act, passed to deter a would-be imitator of Philip Agee, the renegade CIA agent who deliberately blew the cover of hundreds of his colleagues in a book in 1975. Love or loathe Karl Rove or Scooter Libby, they are no Philip Agees. As matters stand, Mr Wilson's fantasy of Mr Rove being "frogmarched out of the White House in handcuffs" will remain just that.
In short, this "scandal" is more Alice in Wonderland than Watergate. For all the kerfuffle, no crime may have been committed. And Ms Plame had been a less-than-secret agent, working in Washington for the past few years, her identity known to many. The journalist in prison is not the one who divulged her name. And The New York Times, among the loudest of all in its demands for a prosecutor, has learnt the age-old lesson of "be careful what you wish for".
Many believe Mr Fitzgerald is no longer investigating a leak, but whether any witnesses perjured themselves in testimony to the grand jury. Is that really worth a journalist's act of conscience? It is not clear whether other sources are involved beyond Mr Libby and Mr Rove. Might a journalist even have been a source, as he (or she) traded information with his contact in time-honored Washington fashion? Mr Rove is believed to have told the grand jury he learnt Ms Plame's identity from Mr Novak. Only Mr Fitzgerald's final report, expected in October, can answer these questions with certainty.
A key element in the investigation is a confidential State Department memo, dated 10 June 2003, sent only to Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, the day after Mr Wilson's article appeared, as General Powell was traveling with President Bush in Africa. The memo deals with State Department doubts about the uranium-from-Niger story, and identifies Ms Plame (named as Valerie Wilson) in a paragraph marked "secret". The question is, who at the White House saw this memo, and thus could be a source of the leak? The Plame affair is a classic example of how this White House, backed by a battle-hardened Republican attack machine, operates. It has shown again that the Bush team cannot tolerate dissenting opinion. As Mr Bush put it after 9/11: "Either you are with us or against us." And Mr Rove appears to have lost none of his well-documented talents as master of the smear.
All of this spells trouble, sapping the administration's moral authority and resurrecting accusations of misuse of pre-war intelligence. Its carefully cultivated reputation for straight dealing is at risk. And this President's equivocations over how he would punish anyone involved sounds rather like that of his predecessor Bill Clinton, of "it depends what the meaning of 'is' is" fame.
And the Rove controversy is just one problem for Mr Bush. Iraq becomes more of a mess by the day. The Senate still refuses to confirm his nominee, John Bolton, as ambassador to the UN. At home, his hopes of reforming social security are foundering. Most indicative of all perhaps are acts of defiance by various Congressional Republicans, for whom re-election in 2006 - in some cases a possible White House run in 2008 - is more important than loyalty to Mr Bush. All are signs of the "second-termitis" that seems to afflict every re-elected president.
Despite Ms Miller's imprisonment, the Plame affair is unlikely to be a landmark in the struggle for press freedom. In laying bare the Watergate scandal, the use of secret sources rendered a service to the nation. In this case, the confidentiality issue involves sources who may have committed a crime. Today, Ms Miller is a heroine. But not long ago, she was prominent in publishing the WMD misinformation provided by an unidentified source named Ahmad Chalabi.
And so the wheel comes full circle. This tacky, third-rate leak that is starting to scar the President's second term springs from the great deception executed in his first term, luring the US into a war that 60 per cent of Americans now believe was misconceived.
That is the true scandal, which has yet to be properly explained.
The outing of Valerie Plame
MARCH: Joseph Wilson returns from a mission to Africa and reports to the CIA that he believes allegations Iraq tried to buy uranium are "bogus". The agency sends a memo to the White House on 9 March summarizing his findings.
SEPTEMBER: A British intelligence dossier, used to justify war on Iraq, says Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from Africa.
28 JANUARY: George Bush, in his State of the Union address, includes the statement: "The British Government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." He does not mention that US agencies questioned the validity of the British intelligence.
7 MARCH: International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei tells the UN Security Council the uranium claim is based on fake documents.
6 JULY: In an article in The New York Times, Mr Wilson reveals that he is the retired diplomat who visited Niger. He claims the administration "twisted" intelligence to "exaggerate" the Iraqi threat.
8 JULY: Karl Rove discusses Mr Wilson's trip and the role that Mr Wilson's wife may have played in initiating that trip with the journalist Robert Novak, who in the course of the conversation identifies Mr Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, by her maiden name.
14 JULY: In his column, Mr Novak names Mr Wilson's wife as an "agency operative on weapons of mass destruction" in a piece about the fallout from Mr Wilson's article.
10 JUNE: President Bush answers "Yes" when asked by a journalist, "Do you stand by your pledge to fire anyone found" to have leaked CIA operative Ms Plame's name?
6 JULY: The New York Times reporter Judith Miller is jailed for refusing to testify before the grand jury, even though she did not publish the name of the agent. Matthew Cooper of Time magazine agrees to comply, saying he had received a specific waiver from his source to do so.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.