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USA Today

McClellan Admission Evokes Memories of Nixon Era

DeWayne Wickham

This trail is starting to look familiar. When an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released book by former presidential press secretary Scott McClellan revealed that President Bush and Vice President Cheney instructed him to tell journalists that top White House aides played no role in the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson, I had an eerie feeling that the nation had been down this path before.

In discussing a 2003 press briefing during which he told reporters that Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, had nothing to do with the leak, McClellan says he was misled."There was one problem," he wrote of what he told journalists that day. "It was not true. I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest-ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff (Andrew Card) and the president himself," McClellan writes.

This blurb from What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What's Wrong with Washington, is posted on the website of its publisher, Public Affairs Books.

We now know that Plame Wilson's identity as a CIA undercover operative was leaked to reporters by at least two Bush administration officials, Libby and then-deputy secretary of State Richard Armitage. The Bush administration did so to undermine the credibility of her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who was sent to Niger by the CIA to determine whether Saddam Hussein was trying to buy a nuclear weapons component from the African nation. After his trip, Wilson concluded that this charge wasn't true and publicly criticized Bush for making such an unsubstantiated claim one of his rationales for invading Iraq. The White House responded by leaking Plame Wilson's identity and suggesting that Wilson's trip was a junket arranged by his wife.

In March, Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice, lying to a grand jury and to FBI agents investigating the leak of Plame Wilson's identity. Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but Bush commuted his prison time.

The seedy path taken by Bush's aides looks a lot like one taken by another White House.

In 1971, a group of advisers close to Richard Nixon decided to go after people they considered opponents of that Republican president. The people whose names made it onto that "opponents' list" were targeted for retribution in much the same way that the Bush administration went after Wilson. As Nixon White House counsel John Dean said at the time, "We can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies." And, in fact, Nixon's henchmen tried to use the Internal Revenue Service to do just that.

Bush's minions took a similar road. They used information secretly gained from the CIA to strike at one of Bush's "enemies" - and to publicly use the president's press secretary to deny any role in this act of retribution.

When the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon in 1974 (he resigned before the full House could vote on the resolution), it accused him of, among other things, trying to misuse the IRS to attack his enemies - and using his subordinates to make "false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States" about the White House involvement.

While there is still little evidence to suggest that Bush was knowingly involved in this coverup, the evidence against Cheney is piling up. It came out during Libby's trial that the vice president authorized him to leak Plame Wilson's identity to journalists. And now we hear from McClellan that Cheney duped him into telling other reporters that the White House didn't have its hands in this matter. This trail of lies and deception has put Cheney on the same path that led to Nixon's impeachment. And it may yet cause the vice president to tumble into the same political abyss.

DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY

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