Allegations are swirling that Karl Rove, senior political adviser to President George W. Bush, may have committed a felony by blowing the cover of a CIA operative. CIA Director George Tenet has called on the Justice Department to investigate but the White House said Monday that "President George W. Bush has no plans to ask his staff members whether they played a role." And what makes this story even more remarkable is how seriously the Bush family has viewed outing intelligence operatives in the past.
The man at the center of this firestorm is Joseph Wilson, the retired U.S. diplomat who debunked the White House's key evidence that Saddam Hussein was rebuilding his nuclear program.
Two weeks ago Democracy Now! aired Wilson's comments before a suburban Seattle audience that he believes Bush's closest aide, Karl Rove, told reporters that Wilson's wife was a CIA agent.
At the forum Wilson declared, "At the end of the day, it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of White House in handcuffs." Wilson added, "And trust me when I use that name, I measure my words."
Wilson told Democracy Now!, "I have reason to believe that it was the political office that at a minimum confirmed it and the political office was Karl Rove.It was a reporter who told me it was Karl Rove and that's as far as I want to go right now."
The whole scandal began in July a week after Wilson went public in an op-ed piece in the New York Times saying he was the diplomat sent by the Bush Administration to Niger to investigate whether Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from the African country. His findings: the accusations were baseless.
Wilson was not alone. The US ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, knew of the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq and had already debunked them in her reports back to Washington. Wilson's conclusions also coincided with those of Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces four-star Marine Corps General, Carlton Fulford, who had also researched the matter on the ground in Niger. Wilson felt he had authoritatively debunked the Niger rumor and "the matter was settled."
But the lie refused to die. In January 2003, Bush made his famous 16 word line in his State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
In July, soon after Wilson blew the whistle in The New York Times, the White House was forced to admit that the accusation should not have been included in the State of the Union.
A few days later, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote a column in which he cited "two senior administration officials" and stated that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative dealing with weapons of mass destruction.
In an extensive interview on Democracy Now!, Wilson said that the outing of his wife as an alleged CIA operative and other attempts to discredit him "are clearly intended to intimidate others from coming forward."
But it's not just intimidation; it's a felony. Until now, a crime the Bush family has taken very seriously. According to Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst who worked under Bush Sr. at both the CIA and the White House, "The Intelligence Identities Protection Act was made draconian, it was made very, very specific, automatic penalties that would accrue to both officials and non-officials-anyone who knowingly disclosed the identity of a CIA agent or officer." The penalty: fines of up to $50,000 and imprisonment of up to 10 years.
Many believe the law was passed in direct response to former CIA agent Philip Agee's blowing the whistle on CIA dirty tricks in his book Inside the Company. George H.W. Bush, who was vice-president when the law was passed, said some of the criticism of the Agency ruined secret U.S. clandestine operations in foreign countries.
So seriously did the Bushes take the crime of exposing CIA operatives that Barbara Bush, in her memoirs, accused Agee of blowing the cover of the CIA Station Chief in Greece, Richard Welch, who was assassinated outside his Athens residence in 1975. Agee sued the former first lady and Mrs. Bush withdrew the statement from additional printings of her book. Still, at a celebration marking the fiftieth anniversary of the CIA, the elder Bush again singled out Agee in his remarks, calling him "a traitor to our country."
David MacMichael worked as a CIA analyst at the time the law was passed. He told Democracy Now!: "If former President Bush could define Philip Agee as a traitor for exposing the identities of serving intelligence officers, if his son's political advisor has done the same.it is a very serious felony under the current Act."
(If in fact it was Karl Rove who leaked or authorized the leak to Novak, it won't be the first time the two have worked in tandem. According to Esquire, in 1992, Rove was fired from the Bush Sr. presidential campaign for leaking a negative story. The difference is, whoever authorized this leak, committed a felony.)
Rather than investigating who in the administration committed this alleged felony, the White House spent months dodging reporters' questions. "I'm telling you flatly, that is not the way this White House operates.No one was certainly given any authority to do anything of that nature," declared White House spokesperson Scott McClellan, careful legalistic language. Neither Bush nor Ashcroft has publicly called for an investigation.
And Vice President Dick Cheney's only public comments on Joe Wilson have been when questioned on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sept. 14, "I don't know Joe Wilson. I've never met Joe Wilson" and "I have no idea who hired him."
Cheney's comments strain credulity.
While technically he may have never met Wilson, the investigation into Niger was done at the request of the vice president's office. Surely, Mr. Cheney learned of this, if not before the request was made, then after, when, as the Washington Post revealed, Cheney traveled repeatedly to the CIA during 2002.
"This is not unusual. This is unprecedented," retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern told Democracy Now! "The Vice President of the United States never during [my] 27 years came out to the CIA headquarters for a working visit.. this is like inviting money-changers into the temple."
While Cheney may not know Wilson, there is little doubt he knows of him. When Cheney was helping run the Persian Gulf War, as secretary of defense, Wilson was one of the key players. As the acting US ambassador on the ground in Baghdad in the weeks leading up to the war, the White House consulted Wilson daily. In those weeks, he was the only open line of communication between Washington and Saddam Hussein. Cheney was the Secretary of Defense at the time and a key player in the day-to-day operations and intelligence gathering. Furthermore, Wilson was formally commended by the Bush administration for his bravery and heroism in the weeks leading up to the war. In that time, Wilson helped evacuate thousands of foreigners from Kuwait, negotiated the release of more than 120 American hostages and sheltered nearly 800 Americans in the embassy compound.
"Your courageous leadership during this period of great danger for American interests and American citizens has my admiration and respect. I salute, too, your skillful conduct of our tense dealings with the government of Iraq," President Bush wrote Wilson in a letter. "The courage and tenacity you have exhibited throughout this ordeal prove that you are the right person for the job."
Wilson says that he heard from people who were at meetings chaired by Bush in the lead up to the Gulf War, "When people would come up with an idea, George Bush would often lean forward and ask them, 'What does Joe Wilson say about that? What does Joe Wilson think about that?' So at the highest level of our government there was keen interest in knowing what the field was saying and Dick Cheney was probably at those meetings."
What's Cheney hiding? What's the White House hiding?
There is a scandal brewing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that if treated properly by the Department of Justice and elected officials could prove to be one of the clearest cases of documentable criminal conduct and blatant lies by an administration since Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal.
Research assistance for this article was provided by producers Mike Burke and Sharif Abdel Kouddous of Democracy Now! a daily national grassroots radio/tv newshour.