Sunday, July 03, 2005

Is Rove going down?


Hat tip (via email, he hasn't blogged on it yet) to John Stone for alerting me to this earlier today yesterday. I've been bouncing around the blogosphere and Google News a little bit to see what's up before expressing an opinion.

For those of you who don't keep up with the the little Beltway tiffs that are always threatening, but not quite yet ready, to erupt into bona fide scandals, here's the story -- (yes, I know that the conventional blogosphere wisdom is just to assume that all your readers have it all down and just throw out a few witticisms for the initiated, but this is a convoluted case and I think it bears examination and explanation, and I've been picking up some readers lately who don't keep their heads constantly stuck in the sewer that is American politics, and, oh yeah, it's my goddamn blog):

- In February of 2002, the Bush administration sent a retired diplomat, Joseph C. Wilson, to Niger to investigate whether or not Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase yellowcake from that country. This came to light after President Bush referred to the alleged attempt (crediting the British with having discovered the plot) in his 2003 State of the Union address and Wilson went public with his contention that it was not, in fact, true.

- In July of 2003, Robert Novak -- a conservative columnist sometimes referred to as "the Prince of Darkness," a title which, of course, rightfully belongs to moi -- wrote an article about the case, and included this sentence in that article: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

- It is a federal crime to reveal the identity of a CIA agent.

Okay, break time for a bit of analysis. Pay attention. There will be a quiz.

We've got two points of controversy so far -- the veracity of the yellowcake story, and the "outing" of Plame's wife as a CIA operative. If you don't follow politics too closely, the former was the center of the "sixteen words" accusations against Bush, i.e. that he lied about intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq; the latter was a consequence of that controversy.

The first reaction of Novak's (and, in general, Bush's) defenders was that Plame was not, strictly speaking, a CIA agent (the parlance for field operatives is, I believe, "case officer"), but rather a deskbound analyst. In other words, revealing her identity did not place her life, or those of people involved in an active intelligence network on foreign soil, in danger. The intent of the law, of course, had been to prevent exactly that. And there is room for some flexibility in interpretation of the law. After all, if any CIA employee is covered by the law, every journalist who reported the president's appointment of Porter Goss as director of the CIA is headed for jail, right?

The second reaction of Novak's (and, in general, Bush's) defenders was, pretty much, that "everybody already knew" Plame wa a CIA employee. According to this argument, it was common at DC cocktail parties to overhear people telling each other "oh, yeah, Valerie Plame does blah, blah, blah over at CIA."

The first argument holds a little bit of water as far as I'm concerned. I mean, what, should I go to jail if I mention that so-and-so is a parking attendant, janitor or window-washer at the CIA? Whether or not this was really an offense is really dependent on what Plame does or did at CIA, in my opinion.

The second argument? No dice. "Yes, officer, I was going 80 miles an hour. So were thirty other people." Not. If a bunch of people were really talking at cocktail parties about Valerie Plame being a CIA employee, then all that means is that they may have been in violation of federal law. If they were, the fact that they were doesn't excuse others for also being in violation of federal law, does it? Okay, okay ... it also means that DC cocktail parties must be incredibly boring. What kind of pickup line is that? "So-and-so works for the CIA. What's your sign, baby?"

OK, anyway, back to the timeline:

- Democrats, opponents of the war on Iraq and various and sundry other groups of people went berserk. They wanted to know who the hell told Bob Novak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA. And they wanted that person publicly drawn and quartered. Yes, there was definitely political hay being made. What did you expect?

- Eventually, attention began to center on the White House, not the DC cocktail circuit, as the probable source of the "leak" about Plame -- and that "leak" allegedly was made to several journalists, not just to Robert Novak.

- A grand jury investigation ensued. A number of prominent officials, including Karl Rove, were called in to testify.

- Allegedly, Karl Rove attested that he was not, in fact, the source of the "leak."

- Several journalists declined to turn over their notes, which were subpoenaed because they might reveal the source. Last week, the Supreme Court denied their appeal on grounds of reporter/source confidentiality, and Time magazine is getting ready to turn over one of its reporter's notes.

- Today Yesterday, a talking head on "The McLaughlin Group" said that those Time notes would out Rove as the source.

Still with me? Okay. Because here's where it gets interesting.

Let's assume that no real harm was done by the leak. Let's assume that the intent of the law leaves enough flexibility to dismiss charges of revealing a CIA agent's identity in this particular case. And let's assume that our talking head is right, and that Rove really was the source. No biggie, right? No harm done ... right?

But wait a minute.

I seem to recall, oh, seven years or so ago, a very similar case. The details are a bit fuzzy, but it was ... it was ...

Oh, yeah. A president. A president who was getting a little bit of intimate, uh, service, in the Oval office. From an intern. There were cigars and stuff. You probably remember.

Now, it was arguable that this wasn't, so to speak, a federal case. So the guy was getting a hummer while he signed treaties and stuff. No biggie. He may have technically been in violation of some regulation or other about exchanging bodily fluids in federal buildings or something, but ... nah ... cut the guy a little slack. He was the friggin' president.

Except that he lied about it.

Except that he lied about it under oath.

Except that he lied about it under oath in a legal proceeding.

That made it a big deal. According to Republicans in the punditry and in Congress, it made it such a big deal that it merited impeachment of a sitting president.

If Rove told the grand jury that he wasn't the source ... and if he was the source ... the Republicans are in a shit sandwich: They can treat the architect of George W. Bush's two selections to the presidency like a leper with halitosis and a grenade in one hand -- i.e. get him as far away from them as fast as they can -- or they can trot out the same arguments in his defense that they dismissed as dishonest and facetious in 1998 when said arguments were used in defense of Bill Clinton.

As Drudge likes to say ... "developing."

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