The rogues' gallery of those who acted badly in the CIA "leak" case turns out to be different from what the media led us to expect. Note that we put the word "leak" in quotation marks, because it's clear now there was no leak at all, just idle talk, and certainly no smear campaign against Joseph Wilson for criticizing President Bush's Iraq policy. It's as if a giant hoax were perpetrated on the country — by the media, by partisan opponents of the Bush administration, even by several Bush subordinates who betrayed the president and their White House colleagues. The hoax lingered for three years and is only now being fully exposed for what it was. Let's start at the top of the rogues' list:
So instead of Cheney or Rove or Libby, the perennial targets of media wrath, the Plamegate Hall of Shame consists of favorites of the Washington elite and the mainstream press. The reaction, therefore, has been zero outrage and minimal coverage. The appropriate step for the press would be to investigate and then report in detail how it got the story so wrong, just as The New York Times and other media did when they reported incorrectly that WMD were in Saddam's arsenal in Iraq. Don't hold your breath for this.
Not everyone got the story wrong. The Senate Intelligence Committee questioned Wilson under oath. It found that, contrary to his claims, his wife had indeed arranged for the CIA to send him to Niger in 2002. It found that his findings had not, contrary to Wilson's claim, circulated at the highest levels of the administration. And Bush's 16 words in the State of the Union to the effect that British intelligence believed Saddam had sought uranium in Africa — words Wilson insisted were fictitious — had been twice confirmed as true by none other than the British government.
Worse, Wilson failed in the single reason for his trip to Niger: to ferret out the truth about whether Iraq had sought uranium there. Wilson said no, dismissing a visit by Iraqis in 1999. But journalist Christopher Hitchens learned the trade mission was led by an important Iraqi nuclear diplomat. And uranium, of course, was the only thing Niger had to trade.
The fascination in Washington with the idea of a White House conspiracy to ruin Plame's career and punish Wilson never made sense. If there had been one, it had to be the most passive conspiracy in history. The suspected mastermind was Rove, the Bush political adviser. But all Rove did was to acknowledge off-handedly to two reporters that he'd heard that Wilson's wife, whose name he didn't know, was a CIA employee. And the two reporters were more likely to agree with Wilson about the war in Iraq than with the Bush administration. The conspiracy charge, the Post rightly concluded, was "untrue."
A few diehards in the media have tried to keep the conspiracy notion alive. Michael Isikoff of Newsweek asserts that what Armitage did and what Rove did were separate, and thus a White House smear campaign could still have gone on. Yes, but it didn't. Jeff Greenfield of CNN recalled a Post story in September 2003 that said "two top White House officials" had contacted six reporters "and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife." But the Post itself has in effect repudiated this dubious story.
What's left to do? Fitzgerald, in decency, should terminate his probe immediately. And he should abandon the perjury prosecution of Libby, the former Cheney aide. Libby's foggy memory was no worse than that of Armitage, who forgot for two years to tell Fitzgerald he'd talked to the Post's Woodward but isn't being prosecuted. Last, but not least, a few apologies are called for, notably by Powell and Armitage, but also by the press. A correction — perhaps the longest and most overdue in the history of journalism — is in order.
By Fred Barnes