Bush’s Aides Scramble As Inquiry Winds Down

103105 article conason Bush’s Aides Scramble As Inquiry Winds DownWhatever indictments may or may not have issued from the grand jury sitting in Washington by the publication of this column, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has uncovered certain essential facts of the C.I.A. leaks affair.

Most important, his investigation has proved that the exposure of C.I.A. officer Valerie Plame Wilson, as a reprisal against her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, originated within the highest levels of the Bush administration. Those revelations directly contradict the repeated and fervent denials that have emanated from the White House.

What cannot yet be said with certainty is whether the President himself lied to us or whether his top aides, including the Vice President, lied to him—or what George W. Bush knew and when he knew it.

Back in September 2003, before the appointment of the special counsel, the President reportedly said, “I want to get to the bottom of this.” His press secretary, Scott McClellan, told the country that Mr. Bush considered the leak of Ms. Wilson’s identity “a very serious matter.” Speaking for the President, Mr. McClellan said: “If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.” But while specifically exonerating Mr. Rove, the press secretary also offered a broad, categorical denial. “There’s been nothing—absolutely nothing—brought to our attention to suggest any White House involvement,” he said.

That statement, to quote another press secretary, is no longer operative. Months ago, we learned that Mr. Rove had spoken with reporters about Ms. Wilson’s employment by the C.I.A. The Presidential aide had hoped to discredit Ms. Wilson’s husband by suggesting nepotism in his C.I.A.-sponsored trip to Niger to gather information about alleged uranium trading with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. (Actually, the former ambassador undertook that arduous trip without pay as a public service—the kind of act that Mr. Rove may find difficult to understand.)

In more recent weeks, we have learned about the involvement of Irving Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the Vice President’s chief of staff, who evidently revealed Ms. Wilson’s C.I.A. identity to New York Times reporter Judith Miller and perhaps others. Now The Times has reported that Mr. Libby first learned about Ms. Wilson from his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney.

It has become crystal clear, in fact, that the highest officials in the Bush White House were deeply involved in the campaign to discredit Mr. Wilson in retaliation for his dissent from the Iraq war policy and the fabricated “weapons of mass destruction” argument for invasion.

As for the President—who once vowed to take “appropriate action” against anyone in his government who had leaked classified information—the New York Daily News reported on Oct. 19 that he has known about Mr. Rove’s role in this matter from the beginning of the investigation.

“An angry President Bush rebuked chief political guru Karl Rove two years ago for his role in the Valerie Plame affair,” wrote the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Thomas DeFrank, whose Republican sources are reputed to be excellent. The story went on to quote “a presidential counselor” who said that the President had “made his displeasure known to Karl. He made his life miserable about this.”

Perhaps so, but the President did not make his displeasure—or the truth about this matter—known to the rest of us. If the Daily News story is accurate, then Mr. Bush was complicit in the lying and covering up that now implicates Messrs. Cheney, Libby, Rove and almost surely others.

Whether this deficit of candor matters very much depends on who answers—and when. Six or seven years ago, nothing mattered more than whether Bill Clinton had lied about his personal entanglement with “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” After the independent-counsel investigation finally exposed his lying about that relationship and forced him to confess his shame, many people demanded his resignation or impeachment.

“He lied to the American people!” they repeated in an unceasing drone. Worse still, he had lied about that relationship while giving a deposition in the Paula Jones case, raising the possibility that he had committed perjury.

These days, however, leading Republicans in Washington seem wholly unconcerned with lying in the White House, even about issues far graver and more consequential than oral sex. Perjury and obstruction of justice—once regarded by the Republican leadership as terrible threats to the moral fiber of the nation—are now dismissed as technicalities scarcely worthy of public attention, let alone indictment.

That is the current opinion of Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, as she stated on Meet the Press last Sunday. Speaking of the possible indictment of White House officials, she said: “I certainly hope that if there is going to be an indictment … that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality …. ”

And let us also hope that, with or without indictments, we will assess the high price in human life and national honor that this lying has exacted.