As the Bush White House juggles two political grenades--the Wilson leak and the MIA WMDs--there are two questions: can Bush and his gang prevent detonations, and can the Democrats make it difficult for Bush to defuse these controversies and escape without offering full explanations?
Within the political-media community of Washington, a consensus is emerging: the Wilson leak story has lost steam. That's to be expected. The burst of attention that occurred several weeks ago followed the surprising disclosure that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak in a July 14 Robert Novak column that identified the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a CIA operative working in the field of weapons counterproliferation. Wilson had criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policy--particularly its use of the allegation that Iraq had been uranium shopping in Iraq--and the leak, attributed by Novak to two "senior administration officials," appeared to have been meant to punish or discredit Wilson. It may have violated a federal law against naming covert government officers.
Once the initial shock passed--the CIA and the White House in a catfight!--the story shifted to a process matter: the conduct of the investigation. A dozen or so FBI agents are gumshoeing away, examining documents, holding interviews. This is not the traditional stuff of front-page headlines. The investigation has become a part of the routine agenda of Washington. As such, it is no longer fodder for the talking-head echo chamber of the cable news networks. And the White House has done a good job of turning down the volume. There have been no articles about Bush aides hiring lawyers. (I've asked around and so far have only heard that Novak has retained an attorney.) And there have been no stories about worry or paranoia at the White House.
Several Washington reporters to whom I have spoken recently have asked, what can the Democrats do to keep the Wilson leak story alive? This sort of question--common in the capital--is a reflection of the structural bias of the press corps. It is easy for reporters to cover an issue if the Ds and the Rs are tussling over it. But if there is no conflict or no holy-shit new developments, reporters move on. So the responsibility for keeping a story oxygenated often falls to the political opposition, not the media.
The Democrats are trying in the Wilson affair. Senator Chuck Schumer has been criticizing the Justice Department investigation--particularly the investigators' decisions to grant the White House a 12-hour delay before White House officials had to turn over requested documents. And on October 24, other Democratic senators held a faux hearing in a room in the Capitol. At this event, Senator Tom Daschle, the minority leader, and several of his Democratic colleagues questioned three former CIA officials about the Wilson business. It was a panel discussion set up to look like a hearing. "Testifying" before the senators were Vincent Cannistraro, a onetime senior official at the CIA Counterterrorism Center, Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst who went through training with Valerie Wilson (nee Plame), and James Marcinkowski, a former CIA clandestine officer.
The remarks from the panelists were sharp and passionate. They each decried the leak, criticized Bush's lackadaisical response to it, and blasted the Bush allies who have downplayed the significance of the leak and politicized the issue by attacking Joseph Wilson. The three men demolished much of the spin that has been coming from Republican circles. "Anyone who would care to try to portray this action as merely negligent, as opposed to deliberate, should also be prepared to explain how anyone so completely inept as to divulge this information by accident ever became a ‘senior official' in any organization, let alone an organization running the country," Marcinkowski remarked in his prepared statement. "What sickens me," said Johnson, "is the partisan nature that the White House has allowed [the leak controversy] to take on." Johnson noted that he had written his remarks with two other CIA veterans who had trained with Valerie Wilson--Michael Grimaldi and Brent Cavan--and that he and his co-authors were Republicans who had voted for Bush and contributed money to his presidential campaign.
Cannistraro told the senators he had heard from current CIA officials that before the war there was "a pattern of pressure" from the Bush White House aimed at pressing the CIA to produce intelligence that backed the case for invading Iraq. He pointed to visits to CIA headquarters made by Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff Lewis Libby, who met with "desk-level" analysts. The analysts, Cannistraro said, maintained there was no intelligence to support the allegation that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium in Africa, and Cheney responded by telling them they were not looking hard enough. "This is the first time in 27 years I have ever heard of a vice president sitting down with desk analysts and…pushing them to find support for something he believes," Cannistraro said. "That is pressure."
The session drew only a modest amount of reporters; C-SPAN broadcast it live. Daschle and his comrades fully expressed their outrage over the leak and its possible harm to national security, and they voiced concern that the Bush administration had attempted to muscle CIA analysts. But they failed to drive home the point that they had organized this event because Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, had refused to hold a real hearing along these lines.
This panel discussion was an attempt to sustain the Wilson leak story. But the Democrats committed a strategic blunder by failing to use the opportunity to present a wider definition of the leak scandal and by not insisting that a congressional inquiry supplement the ongoing criminal investigation.
The Justice Department probe is focused on a narrow question: did anyone break a crime in leaking Valerie Wilson's name and occupation to Novak? Leak investigations are notoriously difficult and often wind up a bust. And due to the intricacies of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, the leakers in this case, if they are tracked down by the feds, may be able to slip through the net. There are certainly leads for the investigators to follow. (A CIA officer now assigned to the National Security Council previously worked at the CIA with Valerie Wilson. Did he or she mention Valerie Wilson's CIA connection to others in the White House?) Still, even an on-the-level Justice Department investigation might not conclude with a prosecutable case. If that happens, there would be no further official activity and whatever information the Justice Department obtained could well remain secret. The findings of criminal investigations are supposed to stay confidential if no prosecution ensues. The Justice Department would not be compelled to produce a public report fingering suspected leakers or examining what the White House did or did not do in response to the leak.
But the original leak is not the only aspect of the controversy that deserves scrutiny. Nor is it the only potential vulnerability for the White House. There is evidence the White House sought to exploit the leak after it occurred. The official White House line, as served up by press secretary Scott McClellan, is that Bush and his aides did not respond to the leak because it was attributed to anonymous sources and the White House does not chase after anonymous leaks. The White House in the past has indeed reacted to anonymous leaks. But more importantly, the available information strongly indicates that once the leak happened White House officials, rather than ignoring it, sought to take advantage of it by calling other reporters and encouraging them to report further on Valerie Wilson. This was probably not illegal. But it was wrong and ugly. And the public ought to know if the Bush White House, instead of seeking the source of a possibly illegal leak that undermined national security, tried to benefit politically from it.
The post-Novak column activity--call it Phase II-- could involve more (and more senior) White House officials than the original leak. A Newsweek report suggested that White House aide Karl Rove might have participated in--or condoned--a post-leak campaign. And McClellan has tried hard to not answer questions about this part of the Wilson-leak affair.
Yet Phase II is not the main subject of the criminal inquiry underway. And that investigation is not geared toward uncovering what happened after the leak. This is more a matter for a congressional probe. But--no surprise--none has materialized, and the Democrats have not made a major push for such an investigation. This is a mistake on their part. Should the Justice Department investigation finish with no prosecutions, where will the Democrats be? At that point, they can try to revive their call for a special counsel. But that will look like desperation. And if they then start to holler about Phase II, they will be open to the charge they are beating a dead horse to make political hay.
In order to serve their political interests--as well as the public interest--the Democrats should now be demanding an investigation that covers Phase II. Such a probe could be conducted by either the congressional intelligence committees or the government affairs committees. With the Republicans in charge, the prospects for a bipartisan investigation are nil. But Democrats could lay down a marker and at least try to expand the boundaries of the Wilson-leak scandal. In the Senate intelligence committee, Jay Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat, does have the ability to initiate an inquiry if he can gather five signatures on a request. There are eight Democrats on the committee.
Rockefeller, though, has yet to show any interest in such an investigation. After the panel discussion with the three CIA alumni, I asked him whether the intelligence committee should examine Phase II of the Wilson leak. "How long do you want to do these things?" he replied. "We'd be here for three years." The Democrats clearly believe the Wilson-leak scandal can hurt Bush. But if they are relying on Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department to score political points for them, they may end up disappointed.
The Democrats have also been slow to react fully to the recent news that Senate intelligence committee, at the direction of Roberts, is preparing a blistering report on the prewar intelligence that will conclude, according to Roberts, that the intelligence on Iraq was "sloppy" and inconclusive. Roberts is arriving late to this conclusion. Others who have found that the prewar intelligence was full of uncertainty include David Kay, the chief weapons hunter; Porter Goss, the GOP chairman of the House intelligence committee; and Richard Kerr, a former deputy CIA chief who has been reviewing the prewar intelligence for the CIA.
The news story about Roberts' report--which he attempted to quasi-deny later--did prompt a dust-up between Rockefeller and Roberts. Rockefeller accused Roberts of rushing out a report that would protect the Bush administration by blaming the CIA for bad intelligence on Iraq's yet-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction. He noted that Roberts had blocked an inquiry into how Bush and his aides had used the prewar intelligence.
Had Bush misrepresented the intelligence? That has not been part of the committee investigation Roberts has been overseeing. And Rockefeller has threatened to use the five-member rule to order such a probe. He also complained that whenever CIA analysts were interviewed by the intelligence committee, representatives of the CIA's general counsel office or legislative affairs office sat in on the sessions. Under such conditions, these analysts probably would be less likely to reveal whether they had been pressured by the White House.
But Rockefeller is not known as a streetfighter. As The Washington Post noted, he "is under considerable pressure from the Senate Democratic leadership not to allow Roberts to focus only on intelligence bureaucrats while avoiding questions about whether Bush…and others exaggerated the threat from Iraq." He has to be pressed to do this? Rockefeller did strike a firm stance--at least in front of reporters--on forcing Roberts to widen the intelligence committee's inquiry to cover Bush's use of the intelligence. But he and other Democrats did not make the most of the revelations about the Senate intelligence committee's report.
If the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs and the supposed connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda was shoddy, there are two options. Either the CIA misled Bush, or Bush misled the nation. Bush and his aides told the public that there was no doubt that Iraq possessed significant amounts of biological and chemical weapons, and Bush claimed that Hussein was "dealing" with al Qaeda and at any moment could slip his WMDs to Osama bin Laden's murderous schemers. Was that what the intelligence definitively said or not? If Bush based his prewar assertions on intelligence that he assumed to be solid but that actually was sloppy, he should be damn mad and sending heads rolling at the CIA, including that of CIA chief George Tenet. If Bush misrepresented less-than-definitive intelligence to make the case for war appear stronger, then he should be apologizing to the nation. So Democrats ought to be asking,, was Bush ill-served by the CIA, or did he misuse its intelligence? Bush should either be beheading folks at Langley or acknowledging fault. But he is doing neither, and Democrats should be vigorously calling attention to that.
With the Wilson leak--Phase I and Phase II--and the increasing number of reports noting that the prewar intelligence was loaded with uncertainties, there are plenty of questions that Bush ought to answer. The Democrats need to pose them.
JUST RELEASED AND A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER: David Corn's new book, 'The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception' (Crown Publishers).
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