Agent’s ‘Outing’ A National Outrage

What kind of government would condone a political crime that may have endangered human lives and damaged national security?

That awful question now arises in the strange case of Valerie Plame, the C.I.A. agent whose cover was blown by two “senior administration officials” last July with leaks to Robert Novak. Revealing her name to the conservative columnist and TV commentator-and several other Washington journalists-was a violation of the Intelligence Identities Act, which punishes such conduct with a prison term of up to 10 years. The C.I.A. has asked the Justice Department to investigate the Plame case.

A dual character assassination was the obvious aim of that ugly, anonymous leak. Mr. Novak’s journalistic excuse was that Ms. Plame supposedly had suggested that the State Department send her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Niger to investigate intelligence that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy a large volume of that nation’s yellowcake uranium to build a nuclear weapon. On that trip, he discovered that the yellowcake story was a fake.

The retired diplomat severely embarrassed the White House on July 6, when he revealed his findings in an Op-Ed article for The New York Times. He believes that the administration officials quoted in the Novak column sought revenge on him and his wife as a warning to any other diplomats or intelligence officers who might dare to dissent from the official line.

In an August speech, Mr. Wilson went so far as to identify Karl Rove as the culprit. More recently, he withdrew that categorical indictment, saying that based on his own conversations with reporters, he still believes that Mr. Rove condoned and oversaw the leaking.

On Sept. 28, press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that he and the President “know” Mr. Rove isn’t guilty. The following day, he declared that the President holds his appointees to “the highest standards” of behavior, which wouldn’t include leaking names of C.I.A. agents. (National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has also offered such comforting reassurances.) Yet Mr. McClellan also said that while administration officials will cooperate with any official investigation of this matter, they won’t be conducting an internal probe.

In the Bush White House, holding everyone to the very highest standards is apparently best accomplished by ignoring whatever they’ve actually been up to. For example, it would be difficult to reconcile those demanding standards with revelations in The Washington Post that two administration officials had “cold-called” at least six journalists to leak Ms. Plame’s identity.

This alleged misconduct was destructive to American national interests as well as simply nefarious and petty. Ms. Plame is an officer in the C.I.A.’s clandestine division, whose work concerns preventing the proliferation and distribution of weapons of mass destruction. Her task is to prevent terrorists and other enemies of the United States from obtaining those weapons or the means to manufacture them. As her husband has said, the publicizing of her name may well have compromised not only her own work, but those who had contact with her. Her “outing” may have endangered the lives of people abroad who have assisted us in the most vital task faced by our intelligence services.

Would the self-styled superpatriots in the Bush White House do such a terrible thing? They say they wouldn’t. According to Mr. Novak and several other journalists in Washington, they did. Now Mr. Novak and those other reporters claim that they would be violating source privilege if they reveal the names of the leakers. But in this case, the alleged leak was a serious crime against national security. Not everyone in journalism believes that those who committed it deserve the veil of confidentiality.

The law which banned the leaking of intelligence agents’ identities was promoted by the President’s

father and signed by Ronald Reagan in 1982. A few years ago, the elder Bush-who once ran the C.I.A. and whose name adorns its headquarters-expressed his feelings on the topic of such leaks: “I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the names of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors.”

The White House’s apparent reluctance to root out and punish the perpetrators is as disturbing as the betrayal of Ms. Plame. The President says it was wrong but for too long did nothing. He ought to have ordered a probe by the White House counsel’s office months ago. His failure to act swiftly is appalling. As for Attorney General John Ashcroft, he simply cannot be trusted to oversee the Justice Department investigation requested by the C.I.A. His longstanding political ties with Mr. Rove alone require that he recuse himself and appoint an independent or special counsel. He should try to appoint someone of probity, if he is able to discern that quality. Perhaps Robert Fiske or William Weld would accept the job.

I always knew that if the Bush family returned to power, we would regret the expiration of the Independent Counsel Act.