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Controversies over pre-war intelligence swamp Washington
MSNBC reports that "the whiff of a scandal" has invigorated the citizens of Washington. They are wondering if anyone in the White House had tried to punish former US Ambassador (and Iraq war opponent) Joseph Wilson by leaking his wife's identity as a CIA employee to conservative columnist Robert Novak.
Mr. Wilson was the official the White House sent to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was trying to buy yellow cake uranium in order to make nuclear weapons. PBS reports that in July he wrote an oped in the New York Times saying he'd told the CIA, after traveling to Niger in 2002, that it was "highly doubtful" Iraq had obtained uranium there. Wilson questioned why President Bush repeated the charge in his State of the Union address months later. Wilson's column ignited a debate over Bush's use of intelligence as he made the case for attacking Iraq.
A few days later, Mr. Novak wrote a column in which he said that "two senior administration officials," said the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger at the suggestion of his wife, Valerie Plame, an "agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." (Novak wasn't the only person to publish the leak ? Time also published Ms. Plames's name and identity in a July article entitled "War on Wilson.")
The Toronto Star reports that the story has developed into a "mini-scandal" with such speed, that it has caught the White House off-guard. But as Mother Jones points out, the contents of the Novak column, which basically revealed the identity of a CIA operative, went untouched by the rest of the media for months. But it did not go unnoticed by CIA director George Tenet, who was apparently quite annoyed that the identity of one of his agents had been compromised. MSNBC reported last week that Mr. Tenet has asked the Justice department to look into the allegation that Plame's name was leaked by the White House. The investigation has now become a full-fledged inquiry.
On Sunday The Washington Post quoted a senior administration official who 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. The Independent points out that naming a undercover operative is a federal offense which carries penalties of $50,000 and up to 10 years in jail. The law in question is a 1982 statute, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. It was a response to an organized campaign led by former CIA agent Philip Agee to identify CIA and other US covert agents around the world. In a conversion with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Sunday, FoxNews host Tony Snow pointed out how serious a charge leaking the identity of a CIA agent can be.
Both Democrats and the White House have reacted quickly to the renewed emphasis on the story. The Washington Times reports that leading Democrats called for an independent investigation, outside the Justice probe. Mr. Bush's chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, said yesterday the allegation that administration officials leaked the name of a CIA operative is "a very serious matter" and vowed that Bush would fire anybody responsible for such actions. Mr. McClellan also denied Bush's chief political consultant, Karl Rove, was one involved in the leak.
But the Associated Press reports that former US ambassador Joseph Wilson says he has been told by "confidants" in the Bush administration that Mr. Rove, at a minimum, condoned the leaking of the story and did nothing to stop it circulating for a week. The Talking Points Memo blog reports that Rove, however, does have a history of leaking stories to Novak. Sources close to the former president [George H.W. Bush] say Rove was fired from the 1992 Bush presidential campaign after he planted a negative story with columnist Robert Novak about dissatisfaction with campaign fundraising chief and Bush loyalist Robert Mosbacher Jr. It was smoked out, and he was summarily ousted. (from "Why Are These Men Laughing?" Ron Suskind, Esquire, January 2003)
For his part, Novak, in a CNN interview, said "no one in the administration called him to identify the wife of Bush critic Joe Wilson." "They asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else. According to a confidential source at the CIA, Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative and not in charge of undercover operators," Novak said. Novak said he would not reveal the identity of his sources within the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, the issue that fired the original exchange between Wilson and the White House, the presence of WMD in Iraq, is also back in the news. The Christian Science Monitor reports that David Kay, the man hired by the White House to look for WMD in Iraq (and who made bold claims about what he would find in Iraq once he was appointed) is expected to deliver a report that he didn't find much. And Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee Monday strongly disputed the assertion by Ms. Rice that there was new information to support the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the war, and was a looming threat to the United States. "We just don't see the support [for that claim]," said Ms. Harman.
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