Plamegate -- where is the crime?
Just where is the crime here? After spending millions of dollars and two years investigating the supposed outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, the special prosecutor manages to come up with the judicial equivalent of lying to the teacher about who tattled on whom and when.
Even though in his bravura press conference a righteous and indignant Patrick Fitzgerald rattled off a fiery speech about the importance of national security, the protection of the identities of covert agents, and the seriousness of such crimes, he utterly failed to make any connection between those statements and the charges he had brought against Mr. Libby, the Vice President's Chief of Staff. Mr. Libby appears to have been charged with lying about something that Fitzgerald was unable to prove was even a crime in the first place.
Perhaps the real crime here is something which is not even being discussed, something which the special prosecutor is not even concerning himself with, but which in the long run may turn out to be something far more serious that does pose a danger and a threat to our democracy -- a crime that may involve an out of control CIA, or at least elements within the CIA, working actively to undermine and oppose the policies of a president during wartime.
Before we even begin it is important to point out that in the end we may find that it was the Bush administration itself that was at fault for not bringing in its own trusted director to bring the CIA under its control. In failing to do so, the president allowed holdovers from previous administrations, whose loyalties were suspect at best, to control the flow of intelligence and even at times to skew intelligence and act in other ways that undermined his authority and his policies. This failure may have led to the long chain of tangled and confusing events resulting in the indictment we saw on Friday. With what appears to be a dogged prosecutor intent on finding that pony in there somewhere dragging out the case by extending the grand jury for yet another term, there seems to be no end in sight to the continued political fallout that is hampering and dogging President Bush’s second term.
How did this come about? Indeed, what is this confusing business all about? To discover that we need to go back and quickly review the events which led to Friday's indictment.
Let’s take a look at where it all began. According to Bob Novak, whose column on this subject set off this whole brouhaha, the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and the Vice-President’s office, pursuant to conflicting reports of attempted Iraqi purchases of uranium from Niger, asked the CIA to look into the matter.
Here’s where the whole story begins to go screwy. Without CIA Director Tenet’s knowledge, someone in the CIA then dispatched former ambassador Joe Wilson to investigate and make a report. After spending 8 days in the capitol talking to Niger officials, Wilson returned and made an oral report to the CIA saying essentially that he doubted the story. The CIA didn’t seem to lend much credence to his report, and in any case it was never forwarded up to Tenet nor was it sent on to the White House or the VP’s office.
So, who sent him? And why did Tenet know nothing about it? And why was the administration never given a formal report on the findings of the trip? And how can Wilson claim that the administration ignored the findings of his trip when they were never even told about it?
This, I think, is the root of the entire problem. How is it that in a crucial time of war, the President was ill served by his own intelligence service? Indeed, not only was he ill served, he may have even been deliberately undermined and misled by elements within the CIA who disagreed with his policies and set out to discredit him, or at the very least, treated requests for intelligence in a cavalier manner.
On a topic such as this you can’t find anyone who knows more about intelligence matters than Herb Meyer, who served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Herb agrees that none of this makes any sense. According to him, normally a request such as this coming from the Vice-President or the White House would be treated with the utmost care.
Here is how Herb put it to me:
“NONE of this would be happening if the President had gotten control of the CIA. No director working for the President would ever have allowed a clown like Wilson to take on this mission. Moreover, no director working for the President would have treated an inquiry from the VP so casually. When we had inquiries from the VP -- and we were pleased to have them, delighted in fact -- we organized the task of responding, got that response, and packaged it up so that Bill Casey could deliver the response himself. That is how it should be done.”
Further, Herb stated that the request for the investigation by the Justice Department had to come from Tenet himself:
“If the CIA itself hadn't ASKED the Justice Department to investigate the ‘outing’ of Valerie Plame, there wouldn't have been a special counsel in the first place. If George Tenet approved that request to Justice, he's directly responsible for launching the whole investigation. If the request went to Justice from CIA without Tenet's approval -- then who in hell was running the
Well he might ask. And well the administration might ask. Just who was the CIA working for? And who was in charge? Nothing seems to make sense.
Then we have the fallout. Wilson wrote an article in the New York Times in which he contradicted what he himself had reported to the CIA.
Again, according to Herb:
“My guess is that the White House went ballistic when Wilson published his now-famous NY Times piece. It was full of lies -- the VP didn't send him to Africa, and what he actually reported to the CIA when he returned turns out to be the opposite of what Wilson says he reported. (All in the SSCI report, signed by both parties.) I suspect the White House was simply trying to set the record straight by telling reporters that Cheney didn't send Wilson, the CIA did and his wife made it happen. They didn't disclose Plame's name for revenge, but rather to explain.
“Bottom Line: The Administration never understood how it was being undermined by the CIA. And when they tried to set the record straight about the Wilson trip to Africa, they did it very ineptly – and, according to the special prosecutor – illegally to boot.”
What Herb says here seems to be borne out when you read Judy Miller’s account of her conversations with Mr. Libby. It is apparent from her meetings with Libby that he was extremely upset over inaccurate reports and leaks emanating from the CIA that served to discredit the president or which suggested that he went to war on faulty or false information. He went to great pains to deny that Cheney had anything to do with Wilson’s trip as had been suggested in a column by Nicholas Kristof. Libby and the White House were angry that the truth of the story was not getting out and were trying to set the record straight. Indeed, according to her notes, the White House felt that the CIA was trying to hedge its bets and have it both ways – assure the administration on the one hand that there were WMD’s, but have a cover story handy in case it turned out not to be true. Here are some relevant passages from her October 16th article in the New York Times:
“I recalled Mr. Libby's frustration and anger about what he called ‘selective leaking’ by the C.I.A. and other agencies to distance themselves from what he recalled as their unequivocal prewar intelligence assessments. The selective leaks trying to shift blame to the White House, he told me, were part of a ‘perverted war’ over the war in Iraq”.
“What was evident … was Mr. Libby's anger that Mr. Bush might have made inaccurate statements because the C.I.A. failed to share doubts about the Iraq intelligence.”
"No briefer came in and said, 'You got it wrong, Mr. President,’”
“Mr. Libby also told me that […] his office had asked the C.I.A. for more analysis and investigation of Iraq's dealings with Niger. According to my interview notes, Mr. Libby told me that the resulting cable - based on Mr. Wilson's fact-finding mission, as it turned out - barely made it out of the bowels of the C.I.A. He asserted that George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, had never even heard of Mr. Wilson.”
It is clear from these passages that the administration realized belatedly that it had lost control of the situation and was being undermined by its own CIA. They had made the mistake of relying on intelligence from an agency that appeared to have its own agenda and which was actively working at cross-purposes with the administration’s policies. Indeed it appeared to be an agency that was not even under the control of CIA Director Tenet himself.
What should the administration have done and how could they have prevented this?
According to Herb, this is how the Reagan Administration would have handled it:
“For the life of me I cannot understand why, before the President cited Iraq's WMDs as a reason for launching the war, no one tied George Tenet to a chair, pointed a gun at his head, and said: ‘George, do we or do we not know at least one specific location in Iraq at which WMDs are stored -- the intersection of Uday Boulevard and Qusay Drive, for instance -- where we can go with CNN, the BBC and the New York Times, kick down the door, and find a bunch of WMDs. Tell us, George, do we have at least one location or not, and if we do show me on a map.’ There
are a half dozen officials who should have done this, of which the
first is Condoleeza Rice in her then-NSC capacity”.
There are many other mysteries and things that don’t make sense about all of this. Why did Judy Miller not reveal Plame’s name, once she was told about her by Libby? Any cub reporter would have rushed to print such a scoop. She claims she had made a recommendation that the New York Times pursue such a story, but the decision evidently did not come down. In addition, Libby had given Miller permission to reveal his identity months earlier, yet she still insisted on going to jail to protect him.
When it comes to Mr. Libby, why would he lie about things that were contained in his own notes, notes that he freely turned over to the prosecutor.
Indeed, Mr. Libby perhaps is guilty only of being too trusting of the process. According to reports he did not hire a top gun defense attorney familiar with grand juries and criminal investigations, but instead stuck with his family lawyer because he told friends he had nothing to worry about. That may have been a crucial error. If it’s true that a good prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict even a ham sandwich – then presumably that’s true because a ham sandwich doesn’t usually have a top-flight criminal defense attorney handling its case. In any event, these do not appear to be the actions of a guilty man.
And perhaps the Bush administration was guilty of something similar – trusting holdovers and appointees from the previous administration and not heeding earlier signs that something was seriously amiss in the CIA.
In sum, the Bush administration may be faulted for failing to bring the CIA under its control, and for using clumsy efforts in an attempt to correct a false story once it was put forward by Wilson. It does seem clear, however, that elements within the CIA acted without authority and in inexplicable ways that ended up undermining the president in a critical time of war.
Perhaps the real crime was the equivalent of an attempted coup against a sitting president launched from within his own intelligence service. In fact, if there is any crime worth investigating, the political use of the CIA by rogue elements to undermine and even unseat a president is a far more important issue to consider than whether or not Mr. Libby has a photographic memory of who told him what, when, and where about Valerie Plame.