Loyalty to Bush, but not to the nation
April 12, 2005
The Valerie Plame leak investigation is losing steam just as the controversy over John R. Bolton's nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is heating up.
The two episodes represent the worst instincts of the enforcers who run the Bush administration as if it were a Cosa Nostra clan.
Plame is the intelligence operative who was "outed" - that is, her cover blown - by conservative columnist Robert Novak in July 2003. Two "senior administration officials" fingered Plame as the reason her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, was sent to Niger to try to determine if Saddam Hussein's Iraq had bought uranium in an effort to restart a weapons program.
Wilson's transgression was having reported back to the CIA that he uncovered no such purchase. Worse, after the president mentioned the nonexistent African shopping spree in his 2003 State of the Union Address as one reason why the United States must go to war, Wilson wrote of his role in unraveling the false theory in The New York Times.
Wilson dissented from the party line. In retaliation, his wife was exposed.
This was a breach of national security as well as common decency, possibly a felony. The long investigation into the leak by a Justice Department special prosecutor was effectively concluded before the November election, according to court papers filed in a continuing dispute over whether two journalists still must be forced to testify. It is unclear whether there will be an indictment in the case or a public report about who engineered the retribution.
President George W. Bush could himself unravel the mystery. The "senior administration officials" who spoke to journalists work for him. Bush could long ago have demanded their resignations. He hasn't. Bush gives the impression that it is perfectly fine to compromise the name of a national security asset if it serves the larger purpose of discrediting dissenters.
In other words, he already has rejected a crucial recommendation of the latest report on the utter failure of the U.S. intelligence apparatus to get anything right about Iraq's weapons programs. The panel headed by Laurence R. Silberman said disagreement about intelligence should be encouraged, not squelched.
The report concluded there was no specific political pressure applied to intelligence analysts before the Iraq invasion. But it described a climate of "too-ready willingness to accept dubious information as supporting the conventional wisdom" and an unwillingness to consider that the conventional wisdom was wrong.
In the Plame imbroglio, wife and husband both were right. Plame was right in suggesting her husband to check out the odd Niger theory; Wilson was right in finding no substance in it. The Silberman report recounts the false assumption about an Iraqi nuclear program as one of the worst errors made in the run-up to war. It singles out the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research as the only agency that disagreed with the erroneous consensus.
This is the very unit against which Bolton has waged his own private war. Current and former officials of the bureau are expected to testify at Bolton's confirmation hearings this week that Bolton berated them when their intelligence did not comport with his desire to describe publicly all manner of weapons threats, including an unsupported allegation that Cuba has a secret bioweapons program.
Bolton also was the man behind the failed U.S. effort to remove Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei's crime apparently parallels the misstep made by Plame and Wilson: He was precisely right in finding before the war that Iraq had not tried to revive its nuclear weapons program.
ElBaradei also has been insufficiently strident in describing Iran's nuclear ambitions, in Bolton's view. But the Silberman report concludes that U.S. intelligence on Iran is no better than it was on Iraq. This hardly seems to be firm ground from which to attack ElBaradei. Nonetheless, Bolton - with White House backing - charged.
So the Bolton nomination is a cavalier dismissal of the Silberman report and other reviews of the catastrophic failures that led the United States into war. It is another celebration of loyalty, which Bush has made a dangerous cult.