They can't find Osama bin Laden.
They can't find Saddam Hussein.
They can't find the weapons of mass destruction that propelled us into war.
And those are prizes the Bush administration would actually like to find.
So what is the chance that the president's in-house gumshoes will ever finger the two "senior administration officials" who leaked an undercover CIA operative's name?
Any good detective will tell you: It helps if you WANT to find the perp.
But relentless is not exactly the word for this internal probe. The hunt for the leakers has barely begun, and already George W. Bush has a tone of resignation in his voice.
"This is a large administration, and there's a lot of senior officials," the president told reporters after his Cabinet meeting yesterday. "I have no idea whether we'll find out who the leaker is."
This is inspiring the troops?
Lucky Bush didn't approach the search for Saddam with the same lackadaisical shrug. Uday and Qusay would already be dating again by now.
Bush did issue a pro forma, "I want to know the truth." But he didn't seem to be breaking much of a sweat finding it.
It was on July 14 that conservative columnist Robert Novak filed his startling report: that two top officials in the Bush administration had outed Valerie Plame. Her husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, had displeased the Bushies by discrediting one of their scariest justifications for war: the claim that Saddam tried to buy uranium from the African country of Niger.
Exposing an undercover is a serious crime.
Hadn't the president's own father, a former CIA director, spoken eloquently in 1999 about the kinds of scoundrels who would blow an American agent's cover? They are "the most insidious of traitors," the first President Bush had said.
For more than two months, his son did little. Only after the CIA demanded it was an investigation begun.
And even then, not an independent one. Bush put his loyal attorney general, John Ashcroft, in charge of the probe. And the e-mail and phone logs of White House staffers wouldn't be handed directly to Justice Department investigators. The records would be vetted first by the president's lawyer, Alberto Gonzales.
The deadline for the handover was 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon. It came and went quietly.
No leakers stepped forward.
No apologies came forth.
The only development of note that happened in the nascent probe was that Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, announced that three juicy targets had already been cleared: Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser; Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and National Security Council adviser Elliott Abrams.
"Outstanding members of this team," McClellan called them.
Abrams, history buffs will recall, is better known for illegal withholding than for illegal leaking. A former official in the Reagan administration, he pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra affair.
And how could the president be so sure this trio of hard-liners left no fingerprints on any leaks? They'd said so, that's how.
Rove, Libby and Abrams "were not involved with the leak of classified information, nor would they condone it," spokesman McClellan said.
Any other questions?
I didn't think so.
Two-thousand White House staffers had been told to review their records for possible leak details. It was quite telling how the request was framed.
They were asked about all connections with Novak, of course. But they were also told to reveal any contacts with two other journalists - Knut Royce and Timothy Phelps, both of Newsday.
Royce is a veteran reporter in the paper's Washington Bureau, well-wired in the world of spooks and spies. Phelps is our Washington Bureau chief.
They had not blown anyone's cover. They had not revealed anybody's name. Novak took care of that.
Royce and Phelps had simply done a follow-up after Novak's piece ran, pinning down an ambiguity in the columnist's reporting. They nailed the fact that Plame hadn't been some mere analyst or researcher at the CIA. She was an undercover operative overseas, whose vengeful unmasking risked terrible consequences - to her safety, her sources and her country.
So by probing contacts with Royce and Phelps, the White House could only be trying to discover who in the CIA helped embarrass the White House.
It's a way of pointing fingers. ("If we leaked, so did you.") It's a way of settling bureaucratic scores. ("You undermined our case for war.")
But all leaks aren't illegal.
Some are in the highest tradition of truth-telling and journalism.
And embarrassing the administration is not yet a crime, despite what some in the White House seem to believe.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.