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The Plame Blame Game's Real Culprits

This column was written by Fred Barnes.

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:
  • Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell, was the first to reveal that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee. He blabbed carelessly to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, then to columnist Robert Novak, who mentioned it in a July 2003 column. Armitage, after admitting this to the FBI in October 2003, stood by silently year after year as Vice President Cheney, Cheney's chief of staff Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, and other White House officials were blamed for what he had done, and President Bush suffered politically. Loyalty is not Armitage's strong suit.
  • Colin Powell, Bush's friend and secretary of state in the first Bush term, knew what Armitage had done and never let on. He met with Bush countless times as the White House was being pummeled in the media and by Democrats for outing a CIA agent to take revenge on her husband. Bush called publicly for the leaker to be identified. Powell knew the identity, but remained silent. Some friend.
  • Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the "leak" case, was aware of the source of Novak's story when he began his still-ongoing investigation in December 2003. Yet finding that source was supposedly the object of his probe. Now working with a second grand jury, Fitzgerald surely knows the supposed conspiracy to defame Wilson is (and always was) a fantasy. Still he won't let go. Fitzgerald has proved once more why naming a special prosecutor is a colossal mistake.
  • The Ashcroft Justice Department. Armitage brought his story to investigators after the CIA requested an investigation when the name of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, appeared in Novak's column. So when the department decided weeks later to appoint a special prosecutor, it already knew who had "leaked" Plame's name. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself, leaving the decision to his deputy, James Comey. Rather than face a torrent of partisan recriminations for dropping the case, Comey passed the buck to Fitzgerald. There were no profiles in courage at Justice.
  • Joseph Wilson, an ex-ambassador and National Security Council official in the Clinton and Bush I administrations, sparked the "leak" controversy in the first place by writing in The New York Times that Bush had lied in his 2003 State of the Union address about Saddam Hussein's seeking uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons. The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger in 2002 to check out precisely that point, and he claimed to have debunked it. Later, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that nearly everything Wilson wrote or said about Bush, Cheney, Iraq, and his own trip to Africa was untrue. Wilson was a fraud. "It's unfortunate that so many people took him seriously," the Washington Post editorialized sorrowfully last week.
  • The media — especially the Washington Post and New York Times — relied heavily on Wilson's reckless and unfounded charges to wage journalistic jihad against the White House and Bush political adviser Karl Rove. Reporters and columnists, based on little more than Joe Wilson's harrumphing, bought the line that the White House "leaked" Plame's name to discredit her husband. In an editorial last January, The New York Times said the issue in the case "was whether the White House was using this information in an attempt to silence Mrs. Wilson's husband, a critic of the Iraq invasion, and in doing so violated a federal law against unmasking a covert operative." The paper's answer was yes.

    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

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