As I read about the Valerie Plame case, in which Special Counsel and Amherst alumnus Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating whether anyone in the Bush administration is legally culpable for leaking the identity of a CIA agent, it reminds me about this one time when I was eating rice. As I was sitting out on the beach shoving a package of rice full of juicy tidbits of meat and gravy into my face, some of it missed my mouth and fell on the ground and so a hungry little crow hopped over and began nibbling at them. I was deeply annoyed by this crow, so I threw pebbles to scare him away. Yet this crow was not stupid – he could smell meat. And an entire flock of his crow friends was perched in the trees who understood that their comrade was up to something. Soon a whole multitude flew down and, undeterred by my fierce barrage of pebbles, started pecking at the little scraps of rice that missed my mouth until they were such a nuisance that I gave up and left them what was left of my meat and gravy to devour.
Please bear with my analogy, but this drama over presidential strategist Karl Rove and vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis Libby revealing that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent, though it might very well entail senior White House officials being convicted of federal crimes, is but a small piece of rice. And now that the Washington press corps has nibbled at this little appetizer of scandal, they are now probing for the main course. As this summer began with the unmasking of Deep Throat, the anonymous provider of the Watergate scandal’s red meat, the spirit of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s news bulletins have been revived; what originally appeared to be a petty felony was revealed to be a sweeping fiasco which involved not just a few bad apples in the bowels of the federal government, but a contamination of such epic proportions that once the dust had cleared, the President and Vice President elected and re-elected by the American people were resigning in disgrace.
Encore à la grande scandale de notre âge. If you can stretch your memory this hard, let us return to January of 2003. At this point in time, Americans in classrooms and cafeterias from Anchorage to Key West to the halls of Congress were having a rational, deliberative debate over whether Saddam Hussein illegally possessed biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, and if he did indeed have these weapons, whether the threat was so great as to necessitate a unilateral, pre-emptive, and illegal invasion to overthrow the Iraqi regime. Two months before the invasion, President Bush laid out the case for war in his State of the Union address, which included this damning morsel: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”. And if just one canister, one suitcase filled with this uranium were slipped into the United States, it could result in a “day of horror like none we have ever known”. Of course, we - in the royal sense of the word - Americans fell for the president’s captivating narrative, and as a result United States troops are now occupying forces in a bitterly hostile land.
President Bush told us that Saddam was seeking Iraqi uranium on January 28th, American forces entered Iraqi territory on March 17th, and on July 6th, the New York Times published an essay by Joseph Wilson titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa”. In this essay he described how in February of 2002, more than a year before the war began, Vice President Cheney sent Wilson to the African country of Niger to confirm a rumor about yellowcake uranium sales, a rumor which the ambassador to Niger had denied in her reports. Wilson interviewed everyone he could in the know of the country’s two thoroughly-regulated uranium mines and concluded that it was “highly doubtful” that Saddam Hussein ever did seek this uranium from Africa. These disapproving findings were sent back to the Vice President, but in his State of the Union address, President Bush still cited an Iraqi-African uranium connection as a reason to go to war. So on the morning of July 6th, 2003, millions of people opened up the only news fit to print and, after reading Joseph Wilson’s 1,444-word essay, learned that at least 15 words which the commander in chief had told them were – to the knowledge of no less than his closest advisor – by all credible accounts false. Joseph Wilson informed the American people that their government did not share with them their best understanding of the truth, but instead an unsubstantiated rumor which corroborated its predetermined decision, and this shook the status quo no less than effecting the resignation of CIA director George Tenet and a fundamental overhaul of the entire intelligence power structure.
As Robert Heinlein explained in the science-fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, “a government is a living organism. Like every living thing its prime characteristic is the instinct to survive. You hit it, it fights back.” That is precisely what happened when Karl Rove stomached that Joseph Wilson and his insightful little essay posed a political threat to his colleagues and their splendid little war. And what does this regime do when it is faced with growing, gathering threats? It launches pre-emptive strikes! Consequently Rove and Scooter Libby utilized the most effective weapon in the political operative’s field manual of dirty tricks: the ad hominem attack, sending stealth missiles at the base of the whistleblower’s better half in conversations with syndicated pundit Robert Novak and investigative reporter Judith Miller.
As Novak wrote in his column, “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate…”, and thus the troubles began. One of Novak’s sources was Karl Rove, the other remains officially unknown, and Miller’s source was Scooter Libby. So if Fitzgerald can prove that at the time of their conversations with the press, Rove and Libby were 1) knowledgeable that Plame’s activity as a CIA agent was classified information; 2) knowledgeable that the United States was taking affirmative measures to conceal Plame’s classified activities; and 3) knowledgeable that they were leaking this information to non-privy civilians, then those two public servants can be punished by up to $50,000 in fines and ten years imprisonment under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. And even if they are found not guilty of the primary charge, Rove and Libby can still be convicted of lesser crimes like perjury and obstruction of justice. Just to complicate things further, two journalists, the New York Times’ Judith Miller and Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, have already serviced time in jail for defying court orders to testify on the case. Quelle scandale!
Though Joseph Wilson yearns to see Karl Rove and Scooter Libby frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs for doing his wife wrong, there is a good chance that the prosecutors will not be able to prove their culpability beyond a reasonable doubt, and thus the legal undoing of the Bush administration might very well end there. Nevertheless, the affair of Valerie Plame is but a little piece of rice which carries the scent of a heartier, juicier scandal, a scandal on which the press and the American people are only beginning to lick their chops.
34 years ago another misbegotten war began to end when a military analyst named Daniel Ellsberg, privy to the Defense Department’s scathing yet classified history of the Vietnam War, brought the Pentagon Papers to a photocopier and sent a print to the New York Times. By exposing the government’s official understanding of the truth and its intentional, fundamentally distorted presentation of the truth to the governed, he fueled the growing antiwar movement and saved countless thousands of lives by hastening the inevitable withdrawal of troops. And in an effort to save their doomed campaign from the forces of reason, the White House retaliated by sending its plumbers to raid the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find some dirt with which they could to smear his character and distract the press from his message. But the damage was irreversible, and thus began the self-destruction of the Nixon administration.
Like our disastrous entanglement in Southeast Asia, this war is also going to come to its inevitable end, and when it does end, it is going to happen because of the alliance between truth-tellers in high perches and the lowly private citizens for whom they work. The enlightenment of the civilian population is essential for democratic control over our military policy in the Iraq, because those lowly private citizens have natural moral authority over the United States government which is in turn lord to the generals who demand more troops and money to quell an insurgency which Donald Rumsfeld testified may take 12 more years to defeat.
And now that the crows have zeroed in on their majestic scandal and the debate has turned to the question of whether or not our armed forces should remain in Iraq, don’t think so hard about whether or not think Karl Rove and Scooter Libby violated the letter of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Instead, direct your attention to the real story, which is all of that African uranium Saddam Hussein never tried to purchase. More than two years after our armed forces invaded Iraq to supposedly protect us from weapons of mass destruction which our chief weapons inspectors have since deemed nonexistent, and more than two years after our WMD search-and-destroy units have been sent home, it is becoming increasingly more obvious that this war was not necessary to protect the domestic security of the United States. Indeed, it is no longer justified by its dwindling supporters as a pre-emptive war to eliminate imminent threats, or even as a preventative war to thwart hypothetical threats, but as an offensive war to spread constitutional democracy and American influence in a strategically important region. This war of aggression is not just lacking in a compelling purpose, but prohibited by the United Nations Charter that was ratified by Congress and therefore the supreme law of the land. So though this investigation may very well implicate senior administration officials with attempting to cover-up their illegal leakage of classified information, it is merely a failed cover-up of a prior failed cover-up, the abuse of clandestine intelligence to conceal a much greater abuse of intelligence which spawned Operation Iraqi Freedom.
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