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Eight Days in July
Published on Sunday, July 24, 2005 by the New York Times
Eight Days in July
by Frank Rich
 
President Bush's new Supreme Court nominee was a historic first after all: the first to be announced on TV dead center in prime time, smack in the cross hairs of "I Want to Be a Hilton." It was also one of the hastiest court announcements in memory, abruptly sprung a week ahead of the White House's original timetable. The agenda of this rushed showmanship - to change the subject in Washington - could not have been more naked. But the president would have had to nominate Bill Clinton to change this subject.

When a conspiracy is unraveling, and it's every liar and his lawyer for themselves, the story takes on a momentum of its own. When the conspiracy is, at its heart, about the White House's twisting of the intelligence used to sell the American people a war - and its desperate efforts to cover up that flimflam once the W.M.D. cupboard proved bare and the war went south - the story will not end until the war really is in its "last throes."

Only 36 hours after the John Roberts unveiling, The Washington Post nudged him aside to second position on its front page. Leading the paper instead was a scoop concerning a State Department memo circulated the week before the outing of Joseph Wilson's wife, the C.I.A. officer Valerie Plame, in literally the loftiest reaches of the Bush administration - on Air Force One. The memo, The Post reported, marked the paragraph containing information about Ms. Plame with an S for secret. So much for the cover story that no one knew that her identity was covert.

But the scandal has metastasized so much at this point that the forgotten man Mr. Bush did not nominate to the Supreme Court is as much a window into the White House's panic and stonewalling as its haste to put forward the man he did. When the president decided not to replace Sandra Day O'Connor with a woman, why did he pick a white guy and not nominate the first Hispanic justice, his friend Alberto Gonzales? Mr. Bush was surely not scared off by Gonzales critics on the right (who find him soft on abortion) or left (who find him soft on the Geneva Conventions). It's Mr. Gonzales's proximity to this scandal that inspires real fear.

As White House counsel, he was the one first notified that the Justice Department, at the request of the C.I.A., had opened an investigation into the outing of Joseph Wilson's wife. That notification came at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2003, but it took Mr. Gonzales 12 more hours to inform the White House staff that it must "preserve all materials" relevant to the investigation. This 12-hour delay, he has said, was sanctioned by the Justice Department, but since the department was then run by John Ashcroft, a Bush loyalist who refused to recuse himself from the Plame case, inquiring Senate Democrats would examine this 12-hour delay as closely as an 18-minute tape gap. "Every good prosecutor knows that any delay could give a culprit time to destroy the evidence," said Senator Charles Schumer, correctly, back when the missing 12 hours was first revealed almost two years ago. A new Gonzales confirmation process now would have quickly devolved into a neo-Watergate hearing. Mr. Gonzales was in the thick of the Plame investigation, all told, for 16 months.

Thus is Mr. Gonzales's Supreme Court aspiration the first White House casualty of this affair. It won't be the last. When you look at the early timeline of this case, rather than the latest investigatory scraps, two damning story lines emerge and both have legs.

The first: for half a year White House hands made the fatal mistake of thinking they could get away with trashing the Wilsons scot-free. They thought so because for nearly three months after the July 6, 2003, publication of Mr. Wilson's New York Times Op-Ed article and the outing of his wife in a Robert Novak column, there was no investigation at all. Once the unthreatening Ashcroft-controlled investigation began, there was another comfy three months.

Only after that did Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel, take over and put the heat on. Only after that did investigators hustle to seek Air Force One phone logs and did Mr. Bush feel compelled to hire a private lawyer. But by then the conspirators, drunk with the hubris characteristic of this administration, had already been quite careless.

It was during that pre-Fitzgerald honeymoon that Scott McClellan declared that both Karl Rove and Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, had personally told him they were "not involved in this" - neither leaking any classified information nor even telling any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the C.I.A. Matt Cooper has now written in Time that it was through his "conversation with Rove" that he "learned for the first time that Wilson's wife worked at the C.I.A." Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of "telling," "involved" or "this" is. If these people were similarly cute with F.B.I. agents and the grand jury, they've got an obstruction-of-justice problem possibly more grave than the hard-to-prosecute original charge of knowingly outing a covert agent.

Most fertile - and apparently ground zero for Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation - is the period at the very outset when those plotting against Mr. Wilson felt safest of all: those eight days in July 2003 between the Wilson Op-Ed, which so infuriated the administration, and the retaliatory Novak column. It was during that long week, on a presidential trip to Africa, that Colin Powell was seen on Air Force One brandishing the classified State Department memo mentioning Valerie Plame, as first reported by The New York Times.

That memo may have been the genesis of an orchestrated assault on the Wilsons. That the administration was then cocky enough and enraged enough to go after its presumed enemies so systematically can be found in a similar, now forgotten attack that was hatched on July 15, the day after the publication of Mr. Novak's column portraying Mr. Wilson as a girlie man dependent on his wife for employment.

On that evening's broadcast of ABC's "World News Tonight," American soldiers in Falluja spoke angrily of how their tour of duty had been extended yet again, only a week after Donald Rumsfeld told them they were going home. Soon the Drudge Report announced that ABC's correspondent, Jeffrey Kofman, was gay. Matt Drudge told Lloyd Grove of The Washington Post at the time that "someone from the White House communications shop" had given him that information.

Mr. McClellan denied White House involvement with any Kofman revelation, a denial now worth as much as his denials of White House involvement with the trashing of the Wilsons. Identifying someone as gay isn't a crime in any event, but the "outing" of Mr. Kofman (who turned out to be openly gay) almost simultaneously with the outing of Ms. Plame points to a pervasive culture of revenge in the White House and offers a clue as to who might be driving it. As Joshua Green reported in detail in The Atlantic Monthly last year, a recurring feature of Mr. Rove's political campaigns throughout his career has been the questioning of an "opponent's sexual orientation."

THE second narrative to be unearthed in the scandal's early timeline is the motive for this reckless vindictiveness against anyone questioning the war. On May 1, 2003, Mr. Bush celebrated "Mission Accomplished." On May 29, Mr. Bush announced that "we found the weapons of mass destruction." On July 2, as attacks increased on American troops, Mr. Bush dared the insurgents to "bring 'em on." But the mission was not accomplished, the weapons were not found and the enemy kept bringing 'em on. It was against this backdrop of mounting desperation on July 6 that Mr. Wilson went public with his incriminating claim that the most potent argument for the war in the first place, the administration's repeated intimations of nuclear Armageddon, involved twisted intelligence.

Mr. Wilson's charge had such force that just three days after its publication, Mr. Bush radically revised his language about W.M.D.'s. Saddam no longer had W.M.D.'s; he had a W.M.D. "program." Right after that George Tenet suddenly decided to release a Friday-evening statement saying that the 16 errant words about African uranium "should never have been included" in the January 2003 State of the Union address - even though those 16 words could and should have been retracted months earlier. By the next State of the Union, in January 2004, Mr. Bush would retreat completely, talking not about finding W.M.D.'s or even W.M.D. programs, but about "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."

In July 2005, there are still no W.M.D.'s, and we're still waiting to hear the full story of how, in the words of the Downing Street memo, the intelligence was fixed to foretell all those imminent mushroom clouds in the run-up to war in Iraq. The two official investigations into America's prewar intelligence have both found that our intelligence was wrong, but neither has answered the question of how the administration used that wrong intelligence in selling the war. That issue was pointedly kept out of the charter of the Silberman-Robb commission; the Senate Intelligence Committee promised to get to it after the election but conspicuously has not.

The real crime here remains the sending of American men and women to Iraq on fictitious grounds. Without it, there wouldn't have been a third-rate smear campaign against an obscure diplomat, a bungled cover-up and a scandal that - like the war itself - has no exit strategy that will not inflict pain

© 2005 NY Times

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