PRESIDENT George W Bush doesn’t have his troubles to seek. The opinion polls show the American people deeply divided about the merits of his presidency, Democrat challengers to his office are gaining in strength and confidence and even his efforts at passing important domestic legislation, to say nothing of finding money for reconstructing Iraq, are getting tied up in red tape on Capitol Hill.
The last thing the President needed, then, was a scandal emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue itself. The rest of the country might be consumed by the latest plot developments in the California recall election, but Washington is agog at the infighting, leaking and counter-leaking that represents the first honest to goodness scandal of the Bush administration.
As Tony Blair has discovered in Britain, George Bush is realising that it might be easier to win a war than justify it. The "outing" of a covert CIA operative named Valerie Plame might on the surface seem a relatively minor, if still illegal, matter, but it is merely one part in a long-running battle over the role of America’s intelligence community and the use of sometimes inadequate intelligence to make the case for regime change in Iraq.
In February last year British intelligence reported, on the basis of a telephone intercept and what are now discredited documents, that Iraq had been seeking to purchase "yellow cake" uranium from the tiny African country of Niger. Yellow cake uranium could, intelligence officers knew, be used as part of a nuclear weapons programme.
In Washington this snippet of intelligence caught the eye of Vice-President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby who asked the CIA to look into the matter. The agency despatched former ambassador Joe Wilson to Niger to investigate the claims.
Wilson spent eight days in Niger before returning and reporting that he believed there was little to no substance in the allegation that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger. The CIA concurred - unsurprisingly since the agency had, it is believed, not wanted to waste its time on what it regarded as a fool’s errand in the first place.
There the matter rested. Until, that is, the President repeated the claim, attributing it to British intelligence, in his State of the Union address in January. The CIA director George Tenet would later be forced to apologise and accept responsibility for the erroneous claim making it into the State of the Union speech.
On July 6 Wilson published an article in the New York Times that revealed his report to the CIA had been negative. In an interview he gave that afternoon, he said: "It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war. It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"
Eight days later the conservative columnist Robert Novak disclosed that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA "operative". Novak has since regretted using that term, arguing that Plame was little more than a desk-bound analyst. In fact she has in the past worked abroad as what is known as a non-official cover operative - this means she was not posing as a member of the diplomatic corps or any other government agency and was instead, supposedly, an employee of, in this case, a private energy company. Plame’s most recent job, however, was for the CIA’s non-proliferation centre, a collection of analysts and former field agents who mount clandestine operations inside countries such as Iraq and Iran to monitor and try to prevent the proliferation of WMD.
Disclosing the identity of an undercover operative is a federal offence punishable by a $50,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison. "Naming her this way would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated in her entire career. This is the stuff of Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames," claimed Wilson.
As Congress and the rest of official Washington departed for the August recess the matter seemed to have been a temporary firestorm that had died down as quickly as it flared up. Then, however, it was revealed that the CIA had made a formal complaint to the Justice Department and had asked for a formal investigation. "That turned it from a talking point into an important story. That confirmed there had been an improper disclosure," says Stephen Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.
The Justice Department last week ordered White House officials to hand over all documents and e-mails, plus records of telephone conversations, to its investigators as the investigation gathers momentum. The Department’s investigators will begin interviewing White House officials this week.
The Washington Post reported last Sunday that "a senior administration official said that before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife". If true - and none of the journalists involved has thus far come forward - the Post’s story suggests a well-organised, calculated attempt to discredit Wilson by attacking his wife and suggesting that, contrary to the evidence, his conclusions in Niger were the result of political partisanship or that he was unduly influenced by his wife’s views on WMD. The Post quoted a different senior administration official as saying the leak was "clearly... meant purely and simply for revenge". Leaking the details over Wilson’s wife, the official added, was "wrong and a huge miscalculation because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson’s credibility".
As the sniping continues, it seems that "what is going on is that the career intelligence officers, the operators and the analysts, are fighting to preserve their special status as professional nonpartisan intelligence officers," a former senior CIA official said last week. "I think a lot of them are very angry at the way the Pentagon has tried to bully them and pressure them into reaching certain conclusions on Iraq. This leak case is symptomatic. It is another episode in this cultural war."
Another former official, close to the agency, told the New York Times: "I think very fundamental questions are now being asked in Washington about the role of intelligence, about the relationship between the director of central intelligence and the President and the relationship between the CIA and Pentagon."
It is not even an open secret in Washington that many intelligence officers are deeply unhappy with the manner in which they believed they were pressured, particularly by the Vice-President’s office and the Pentagon’s own intelligence analysts to come up with intelligence that proved Saddam was actively seeking to maintain or at the very least restart his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes. "People are asking, is there any point if they don’t listen to us? Is there any point if they want to interpret the intelligence their way anyway?" said one former CIA analyst.
Wilson said in a speech in Seattle in July that: "I don’t think we’re going to let this drop. At the end of the day it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove [President Bush’s chief strategist] frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me when I use that name. I measure my words."
Since then, however, Wilson has rolled back from that position, blaming it on a "moment of exuberance", and suggesting that he had not meant to suggest Rove was the source. But if it wasn’t the President’s consiglieri who leaked Plame’s name to the press, then who was responsible? The road most travelled in Washington last week lead to the Vice-President’s office and his chief of staff Libby.
Cheney and Libby made several visits to CIA headquarters in Langley to quiz members of the agency’s non-proliferation centre on the evidence they had accumulated of Iraqi efforts to acquire WMD. Although Plame did not attend those meetings she was involved, it is claimed, in preparing materials for them. After these meetings it is believed that Cheney returned to Washington deeply unhappy with the quality of the evidence the CIA had accumulated and, more importantly, unconvinced by the interpretation the Agency put on that intelligence.
According to Vincent Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism branch, the dispute can be traced back to the State of the Union address where "Cheney and Libby made sure it [the Niger uranium allegation] got in. Then you get a report from the CIA casting doubt on the authenticity [of that allegation]. The leak was to punish Wilson, to disparage him with the suggestion of nepotism."
"Do people really think they can get away with this?" says Judith Yaphe, a former Iraq analyst for the CIA. "If so they have seriously misjudged Joe Wilson." Wilson said last week that a week after Novak’s column was published he received a phone call from a reporter who told him that "he [the reporter] had just gotten off the phone with Karl Rove and that Rove had said Wilson and his wife were fair game".
"They thought that by coming after me they would discourage others from coming forward. The point that they tried to make is that there are consequences if you dare to step forward," he said.
So, what impact will this growing, if still slow-burning scandal, have on the President’s hopes for re-election next November? One thing can be said with certainty: it will not help. Neither will last week’s report by weapons inspectors in Iraq, who have so far failed to find WMDs. An opinion poll published by the New York Times on Friday was merely the latest to show Bush’s support ebbing away. Only 37% of voters approve of his handling of the economy while his overall approval rating is hovering around the 50% mark. Unless the administration is seen to make good on its promise of a full and transparent investigation, Democrat charges that it is acting in a "Nixonian" fashion may in time resonate with the electorate. Plamegate will not be easily dismissed.
The President’s re-election prospects, seemingly so secure a year and even six months ago are suddenly in doubt. He retains many advantages - not the least of which are the bully-pulpit of incumbency and the largest electoral war chest in American political history - but Democrats believe they have the President on the back foot for the first time since September 11, 2001. Republicans, blithely confident just a few months ago as American troops stormed Baghdad in triumph, now admit they have a fight on their hands.
Concerns over the costs of occupying and reconstructing Baghdad - $87bn at the latest count - and the question of how long American troops will remain inside Iraq are combining with domestic worries over the still spluttering state of the economy to make Bush’s re-election a less than foregone conclusion. Two years on from September 11, the idea of national unity has cracked and the United States is reverting to the bitterly polarised country it was during the 2000 election.
The administration is trying to portray the Plames brouhaha as an "inside the Beltway" story, of interest to Washington political insiders but of little or no relevance to the rest of the country. "That’s not the case," says Aftergood. "In the first place this is an intrinsically dramatic story. You have the faithful ambassador whose secret agent wife has been exposed because of the criticisms he has made about the administration. It’s a real-life melodrama and it won’t go away anytime soon."
SWIMMING AGAINST THE TIDE
LEAKS are notoriously difficult to plug. The most famous effort to do so resulted in President Richard Nixon’s resignation; the bungled break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex of apartments and offices had originally been designed to discover who might be leaking documents from the White House. The thieves were even designated "plumbers" and the extensive cover-up of their operations would eventually lead to Nixon’s downfall.
Even when leak investigations proceed within the bounds of the law they rarely succeed. Only twice in recent years have leakers been caught and punished. In 1984 Samuel Morrison, a navy intelligence officer, was convicted of leaking classified information after he passed three photographs taken from spy satellites to Jane’s Defence Weekly.
In January this year a former intelligence officer at the Drug Enforcement Administration was convicted of selling classified information to the Times and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Jonathan Randel was accused of selling sensitive information to the Times that showed the Belize-based banker and former Treasurer of the Conservative party Michael Ashcroft had been mentioned in DEA files. The DEA takes a close interest in Belize’s banks, as it believes large amounts of drug money are laundered through the tiny Central American country. Ashcroft sued the Times and won an out-of-court settlement.
Tracking down the officials who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative to the press will be difficult, in part because of the nature of the antiquated White House telephone system: all calls to local Washington numbers are simply listed in the official telephone logs as having come from the main White House number, not individual extensions. In 2000, the-then US Attorney General, Janet Reno, told a congressional committee: "Congress has held repeated hearings over the past 20 years, and interagency review groups have suggested various solutions, but the fact is there is no easy answer to preventing leaks or catching leakers."
Leaks cut both ways, however. Politicians loathe leaks that prove hostile to their interests but routinely leak selected information to favoured journalists to help get their message out and cast their policies in a favourable light.