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Thursday, October 27, 2005

An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle

Waiting for the results of the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case has me feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve. By the time you read this, you may know the results, but for me, they are still under wraps. All the pundits were abuzz Tuesday with the news that indictments could come down the next day. By the time I got home from class on Wednesday, the jury had adjourned for the day, with no results in sight. The term of the grand jury ends today (Friday), so prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald either goes public or goes with a new grand jury. Fitzgerald met with Judge Thomas Hogan on Wednesday, and while it seems unlikely he is seeking to extend the investigation, he may seek to have his indictments sealed. Which means what, I'm not exactly sure.

The unsettling thing about this case is that I realize I may get nothing but socks and underwear. Sure, I'd love to see Karl Rove take the perp walk and watch the White House collapse like a house of cards, but the odds of that happening are very slim. It seems likely that Scooter Libby will have his hat handed to him, but that doesn't have the same satisfaction as seeing his boss, Dick Cheney, spanked on the National Mall with a yardstick. I fear that in the end, the anxiety that this government has about the results of the investigation may prove groundless.


First, a little background on the case, for those of you who have not been paying attention or who may have gotten lost along the way. It all starts back in 2001, when Italian intelligence agents obtain documents that indicate that Iraqi officials tried to buy yellowcake from Niger. This yellowcake is not a Sarah Lee product, but is essentially uranium ore. Eventually the documents turn out to be forgeries, and the agents turn out to be Roberto Benigni and Don Novello. But that comes later.

In 2002, Joseph Wilson, an ambassador under Bush I and Clinton, is sent to Niger to investigate these allegations. Wilson claims the order originated in Dick Cheney's office; Cheney says the order originated in the CIA. In any case, in March Wilson goes to Niger, decides the claims are bogus, and files a report with the CIA. The CIA summarizes his findings in a memo to the White House.

[Note: Cheney says he never asked for such a report and never received such a report. Note also, though, that Cheney receives daily briefings from the CIA, so if there was a memo that essentially said, "Nothing's happening," it could easily have been filed without being read.]

Nearly a year later, on January 28, 2003, George Bush delivers his State of the Union address with the now-famous "16 words:" "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." A week later, Colin Powell addresses the United Nations, but doesn't mention African yellowcake because he doesn't think the evidence is valid. As it turns out, nearly four months earlier, a similar line was struck from a speech Bush delivered in Cincinnati, because of objections from the CIA, which did not consider the claim legitimate. So by that time, the National Security Council, if not the President, knew the assertion to be false.

In March 2003, we invade Iraq. Two weeks before we go, the head of the Atomic Energy Agency reports to the UN that the yellowcake papers are forgeries.

July 6, 2003, Joe Wilson writes an op-ed piece for the New York Times called, "What I Didn't Find in Africa." It is about his trip to Africa and what he didn't find there. Duh.

July 14, 2003. For most of us, this is when the story starts. Robert Novak writes an article about Wilson's trip to Africa. Now here's the thing. The Novak article? Doesn't say much. It's not much more than a half-assed overview of the events. Novak supports Bush, saying he never saw Wilson's report prior to the State of the Union. (Which is probably true. But it doesn't mean no one had seen it. Remember Cincinnati.) But he doesn't slam Wilson, beyond saying the CIA didn't consider his information as definitive.

What he does say, about midway through, is this: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him."

If you didn't know what you were looking for, you wouldn't find it. What we now know is that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA under "non-official cover." She was a NOC – one of the undercover agents on the list that Vanessa Redgrave is trying to buy in Mission: Impossible. NOCs are valuable because they operate in plain sight. To foreign governments and businesses, they are ordinary American citizens and businessmen; they treat them as civilians and don't pay attention to them. But if they are discovered, they have no diplomatic immunity. There's nothing the US government can do for them.

In September 2003, the Justice Department opens an investigation into the leak that resulted in Novak revealing Plame's identity.


On one hand, this case truly is much ado about nothing. By the time Novak outed her, it appears that Plame was no longer working in the field, so she wasn't really in danger of assassination, as would be the case with an active NOC. Novak may or may not have known Plame was undercover; whoever told him about Plame may or may not have known she was undercover. (Hopefully the grand jury report, if there is one, will shed some light on this.) Novak's article has been interpreted as an effort to smear Wilson's credibility. It doesn't really do that. I'm not sure how it's supposed to do that. I assume by portraying Wilson as someone who needed the influence of his wife in order to get work. Or perhaps as showing that Wilson's trip was politically motivated. This may have been the intention of the "Two senior administration officials," but Novak sure doesn't carry it off.

[Side note: I just recently read Novak's article, and saw how empty it was. Until I actually read the article, I assumed Novak had openly outed Plame, and that he had drawn a more distinct connection between her job and Wilson's trip. Instead, it is just so much blather. A Washington Post article says the leakers revealed Plame's name to six highly placed reporters. If that's the case, it's unfortunate that Novak's the only one who ran with it. At the same time, since Novak is the one who actually outed Plame, it's suspicious that he got off so easily, especially when reporters from Time and The New York Times faced prison sentences. I assume Novak cooperated with authorities.]

It is the intention of the leakers that ticks me off, and why I want to see trouble come down. This desire to win at all costs is the most destructive element in modern politics. It is no coincidence that Novak's article appeared within a week of Wilson's. Wilson revealed his experiences and information about the Nigerian uranium, and accused the Administration of going to war in Iraq under false pretenses (something we now know to be true). Rather than responding to his points, the choice of the Administration (officially or not) was to challenge Wilson's integrity. Not only is that underhanded, it is clearly "un-American."

The Administration is on as shaky moral ground in this dispute as the Clinton administration ever was. After saying he would fire anyone who leaked Plame's name, the President now says he will fire anyone who is guilty of a crime. The argument which has been made is that the leakers – Libby, Rove or whoever – didn't know that Plame was undercover, so they're not guilty of a crime. That may be true. But why bring her up at all? Contrary to statements by Fox News, she did not "send" Joe Wilson to Niger – she didn't have that authority. She may have recommended him for the job, but Wilson served as head of African affairs on the National Security Council: no one disputes he had the credentials. Plame was not part of the story. Until someone told Novak, and Novak told everyone.

Perhaps no "crime" was committed in revealing Plame's name. Perhaps, since she no longer seems to work undercover – she sure can't any more – no "harm" was done. But who gets to make that decision? Who decides that it is okay to reveal the identity of this undercover agent, but not that one? Certainly not an unelected official such as Libby or Rove. And if the order came from Cheney, does that make it okay? And if it's okay for this administration, is it okay for the next? When is it not okay?

Here's one case where it should not be okay: when we're fighting a War on Terror, and the agent is "an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." Plame's work was directly related to what, in 2003, was the most important objective to the United States. Surely that was no time to reveal her identity because of a petty turf war. George H.W. Bush said that revealing an agent's identity was treason. If these incidents occurred under a Democratic administration, you can bet that word would be bandied about. If you doubt me, take a quick glance at which popular books of political opinion have the word "treason" in the title.

Finally, the point that never seems to be made: Wilson was right. There is no credible evidence that Saddam's government bought any yellowcake. What Wilson said was true. What Bush said in the State of the Union was not true. Even if Plame was responsible for Wilson going to Africa, what he reported was the truth. Trying to undermine his report was done in service of a lie. It may not be illegal, but certainly is morally reprehensible.


Rumor has it that Karl Rove may face perjury charges in relation to his testimony to the grand jury. For someone like Rove, who is constitutionally incapable of telling the truth, such an accusation is meaningless.


Whoever goes down for this – if anyone does – they don't have much to worry about. Failure is the road to the top in this administration. Remember Michael Brown, the former head of FEMA? Know what he's doing now? Working for FEMA. As a consultant. At his same salary of $3,000 per week. White House insiders say that back before she was a Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers was promoted from Deputy Chief of Staff to the Counsel's Office because she took so long to get anything done that she drove Chief of Staff Andy Card crazy. And Stephen Hadley, the guy who approved the yellowcake reference in the State of the Union over the objections of the CIA, know what he's doing now? That's right, he's the National Security Advisor!


I'm glad that Harriet Miers withdrew herself from consideration for the Supreme Court. I'm sure she's a lovely lady, but answering questions about previous cases by saying "I'm going to have to bone up on that" does not bode well for a future on the Court. Remember her name for future editions of Trivial Pursuit. Maybe it will take your mind off the fresh hell which George Bush is bound to visit upon us with his next nominee.


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