06 Sep 2006

Obituary for the Plamegame

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Rowan Scarborough sums up the life and career of the now deceased L’Affaire Plame, and arrives at the same conclusion the US Senate did previously: former Ambassador Joseph Wilson is irresponsible and a liar.

The expectation on the left that the Valerie Plame affair would blossom into another Watergate, bringing down a second Republican presidency, has fizzled.

Liberals expected that convictions of one or more persons in the Bush administration for leaking or confirming to columnist Robert Novak that Mrs. Plame, the wife of Bush critic Joseph C. Wilson IV, was an undercover CIA operative. Echoing Mr. Wilson’s claims, prominent liberals and leftists, most of them in the press, accused the White House of orchestrating a smear, and sought to drive Karl Rove either out of office or into prison, or both.

Three years on, none of that has happened, and the “scandal” is played out.

Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, urged on by the pundits and the mainstream press, delved into the city’s culture of reporters and their confidential sources. He issued subpoenas for all types of e-mails and documents to find out which Bush administration officials were talking to which reporters. He threatened reporters with jail — and imprisoned one of them — which may have set a precedent for future prosecutors to compel reporters to disclose their confidential sources.

But in the end, the exhaustive investigation produced no criminal charges against any official for leaking Mrs. Plame’s name in violation of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Moreover, it has recently emerged that the official who first revealed her name to Mr. Novak, for a July 2003 column, was not a White House official, but Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state to Colin L. Powell…

David Corn, the Washington correspondent for the left-wing Nation magazine, was one of the first columnists to suggest that the Plame matter was a scandal, orchestrated to punish critics of the Iraq war.

“Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a U.S. intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security — and break the law — in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?” Mr. Corn asked in the Nation two days after the Novak column appeared. “It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Bob Novak can be trusted.”

Last week, Mr. Corn, co-author of a new book that revealed Mr. Armitage as Mr. Novak’s original source, took a different view, acknowledging Mr. Armitage’s reputation as an “inveterate gossip” rather than a partisan hit man…

Why were Mr. Armitage, Mr. Rove and others talking about Mrs. Plame? Rather than a smear, the mentioning of Mrs. Plame’s name now appears to have been an attempt to set the record straight on this issue: how it came about that Mr. Wilson, a Bush critic who later joined Sen. John Kerry’s campaign and who was not a trained intelligence investigator, was chosen by the CIA to travel to Niger to investigate an important question for the administration as it planned to go to war in Iraq.

The question: Did Baghdad approach Niger about buying yellowcake, a refined uranium that can be further processed into weapons-grade material?

Mr. Wilson said he found no such evidence and went public with his findings in summer 2003. In an op-ed essay in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, he disclosed his CIA mission and said he found no evidence of a deal… a 2004 report cast doubt on some of Mr. Wilson’s claims.

In 2003-04, the Senate Intelligence Committee spent considerable time investigating why the CIA got the intelligence wrong on Iraq. As part of that mandate, staffers delved into the Niger mission.

First, it reported that, despite Mr. Wilson’s denials, he did get the Niger assignment because of his wife. When her unit, the Counterproliferation Division, got word that Mr. Cheney wanted the yellowcake report investigated, Mrs. Plame recommended him to her boss, and she put it in writing.

The committee, which wrote a bipartisan report, turned up a memo to her superior which said, “My husband has good relations with both the [prime minister] and the former minister of mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.” The report said that the next day her unit arranged for Mr. Wilson’s trip to Niger.

She approached her husband with the remark that “there’s this crazy report” on a deal for Niger to sell uranium to Iraq. Niger had sold yellowcake to Saddam two decades ago, and some of it was still in Iraq when U.S. troops arrived in the Gulf war in 2003.

The Senate investigators reported that Mr. Wilson did, in fact, find evidence that an Iraqi overture to buy yellowcake may have occurred. To Republicans, this meant Mr. Wilson’s op-ed in the New York Times — the essay that triggered the whole affair — was inaccurate, just as Mr. Libby contended to Mrs. Miller that it was.

In an addendum to the bipartisan report, Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, wrote that “public comments from the former ambassador, such as comments that his report ‘debunked’ the Niger-Iraq uranium story, were incorrect and have led to a distortion in the press and in the public’s understanding of the facts surrounding the Niger-Iraq uranium story. The committee found that, for most analysts, the former ambassador’s report lent more credibility, not less, to the reported Niger-Iraq uranium deal.”…

At the end of the affair, some liberal voices concede the fizzle. In an editorial last week, The Washington Post observed that “It now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush’s closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.”

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