Just as it was not the Watergate break-in per se (but the subsequent cover-up) that brought Nixon down, so it may be that what Rove said and did after the fact will prove his undoing.
At the center of the controversy is an obscure and very restrictive 1982 federal statute designed to protect American spies. The legislation is known as the "Philip Agee" law and was put in place to discourage people such as Agee (a disaffected leftist who had been in the CIA) from "outing" covert CIA operatives stationed abroad. Valerie Plame appears to have fallen under this category of protected names since she had worked undercover for the agency in her overseas posts.
The obstacle to getting a conviction against Rove for leaking her identity to reporters is that he would have had to have known that she was an undercover operative and also known that it was against the law to reveal her identity.
It is doubtful that Rove had such knowledge. This is not (as it was with Agee) a situation where you have a disgruntled activist exposing our spies in order to disrupt CIA covert operations and put the life of an agent at risk.
This was simply Karl Rove doing what he does best — employing a scorched-earth policy against anyone whom he views as an enemy of the Bush administration.
And Valerie Plame happened to be "fair game," in Rove's words, because she is the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, a man who had challenged the intelligence findings that the Bush administration had used to justify its pre-emptive war against Iraq.
Besides, Rove had gotten away with orchestrating smears throughout his political career, dating back to his days as a college Republican operative in the Nixon years.
Karl Rove is a master of using the press to do his dirty work for him; he would leak sensitive information to favored reporters on a "not for attribution" basis. When the damaging information appeared in print, Rove would pile on a story that was essentially his creation in the first place. It was a formula that worked for him time and time again.
This time, however, was different. Valerie Plame had been under "deep cover," and the CIA demanded that the Justice Department investigate the leak.
To his credit, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the case, and his deputy selected U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald from Chicago to be the special prosecutor. Fitzgerald had previously taken on Islamic terrorists, Mafia chieftains and corrupt politicians with notable success.
How could Rove possibly have guessed that the case would take on such importance that the judge would require key reporters to reveal their sources, thus outing Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Rove?
What Rove also did not realize was that he had put himself in the middle of a foreign-policy fight between neoconservative advocates of the war in Iraq and critics such as Wilson who were accusing the administration of "cooking the books" and "manipulating intelligence."
Rove is such a political lightning rod that most of the focus has been on him. Very little attention has been given to the other name mentioned as a source for stories by syndicated columnist Robert Novak and Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper. "Scooter" Libby is Dick Cheney's chief of staff and national-security adviser. While Karl Rove may call the shots when it comes to President Bush's domestic agenda, Cheney is king when it comes to foreign policy. Paul Wolfowitz may have been the architect of the war in Iraq, but Dick Cheney made the call to go forward and persuaded the president to give his approval.
What happens if it turns out that the Bush administration relied on fabricated information about "weapons of mass destruction" (WMDs) to persuade Congress and the American people that we had to go to war against Iraq?
Wilson had debunked the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was attempting to acquire a form of uranium from Niger to make WMDs. Wilson had to be discredited because, if the Niger information were false, it cast doubt upon many of the other intelligence claims made by neocons.
If special prosecutor Fitzgerald is going down this road, certain prominent figures could be indicted for obstruction of justice and/or for lying about classified national-security matters to Congress and the American people. Perhaps that is why leading neoconservative spokesman Bill Kristol said that Fitzgerald "is the problem for the White House; we have no idea what he knows ... "
The worst possible scenario for the administration would be if it turns out that the Niger documents in question (which all now agree were forged) were fabricated by individuals who may have had a motive for getting us into the war. Shadowy figures previously linked to the Iran-Contra scandal have been mentioned as possible originators of the forged documents.
If there is any truth to these charges, the lid will blow off Washington — and the Bush administration will be history.
Richard Nixon must have spent much of his life after the presidency wondering what went wrong — why such an insignificant matter in the grand scheme of things ended his career. I suspect he never fully appreciated how the cultivation of an environment in which the ends justifies the means infected those associated with his administration.
In my judgment, George W. Bush's White House has much more in common with the Nixon administration than with his father's. The same mind-set of the ends justifying the means is at work here, and it may have caught up with Rove and others in the Plame Affair.
The usual sycophants are beating the drums in defense of Karl Rove, trying to make the case that conservatives have a stake in keeping Rove in power. But the party line may not save Rove's job this time. In his eagerness to hunt down a perceived enemy, Karl Rove stumbled into a national-security briar patch that may bring the entire neocon cabal down with him.
Pauken is a former Reagan official who served as a military-intelligence officer in Vietnam. He also was chairman of the Republican Party of Texas from 1994 to 1997. This article first appeared in the September 2005 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture
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