Media Misses the Point On C.I.A. Leak Story

091106 article conason Media Misses the Point  On C.I.A. Leak StoryTo observe the Washington press corps is to wonder why so many people who don’t remember what happened yesterday and can’t master basic logic are expected to analyze politics and policy. The latest developments in the Valerie Plame Wilson case—as revealed in Hubris, a new book by Michael Isikoff and David Corn—proved once more that the simplest analysis of facts is beyond the grasp of many of America’s most celebrated journalists.

What Messrs. Corn and Isikoff reveal, among other things, is that the first official to reveal Valerie Wilson’s covert identity as a C.I.A. operative to columnist Robert Novak in June 2003 was Richard Armitage, who then served as Deputy Secretary of State. Unlike other Bush administration figures who were involved in leaking Ms. Wilson’s identity, such as Karl Rove and Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Mr. Armitage was known to be unenthusiastic about the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

From those two facts, numerous pundits and talking heads have deduced that Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby were guiltless, that there was no White House effort to expose Ms. Wilson, and that the entire leak investigation was a partisan witch hunt and perhaps an abuse of discretion by the special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald. The same pundits now proclaim that Mr. Armitage’s minor role somehow proves the White House didn’t seek to punish Valerie Wilson and her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, for his decision to publicly debunk the Presidential misuse of dubious intelligence from Niger concerning Iraq’s alleged attempts to purchase yellowcake uranium.

But whatever Mr. Armitage did, or says he did, in no way alters what Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby did in the days that followed, nor does it change their intentions. It’s a simple concept—two people or more can commit a similar act for entirely different reasons—but evidently it has flummoxed the great minds of contemporary journalism.

In this instance, Mr. Armitage says he was merely “gossiping” with Mr. Novak, who seems to have been primed to question him about the Wilson affair. But both Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby sought to undermine Joe Wilson’s credibility—and perhaps to victimize him and his wife—by planting information about Valerie Wilson with two reporters. Mr. Rove gave that information to Time reporter Matt Cooper, who got confirmation from Mr. Libby. And Mr. Libby provided the same poisonous tip to New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

Almost from the beginning of his investigation in December 2003, Mr. Fitzgerald has known about the blabby Armitage, who at least came clean promptly. But Mr. Fitzgerald, a Bush appointee of impeccable reputation, understood that the Armitage confession was of limited relevance—and it didn’t discourage the special counsel from conducting a thorough probe that uncovered a secretive, high-level effort, emanating from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, to discredit Joe Wilson and to use his wife’s two decades of undercover work for her country as a weapon against him. Indeed, the only reason Mr. Armitage knew about Valerie Wilson was that he had read a negative dossier on Joe Wilson prepared at the behest of Mr. Libby.

On his blog, Mr. Corn, the Washington editor of The Nation, recently responded to the opinion-makers who were so eager to misuse his reporting to exonerate the White House. “As Hubris will make clear,” he wrote, “Rove’s leak (to Robert Novak and Matt Cooper) and Libby’s leak (to Judith Miller and Cooper) were part of a campaign to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson. That’s no conspiracy theory. The available evidence proves this point.”

According to an article published by Mr. Corn in The Nation on Sept. 5, the available evidence also proves that Valerie Wilson was not only a genuine C.I.A. undercover officer, but that she was in charge of agency operations seeking proof of Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Specifically, she ran the Joint Task Force on Iraq, which was part of the Counterproliferation Division of the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Operations. She worked overseas, including trips to Jordan and other theatres of operations, using a “nonofficial cover.” By disclosing her identity, the Bush officials ruined her career and endangered the sources and methods she had used in the President’s service. Hubris also suggests strongly that her alleged role in dispatching her husband to Niger has been exaggerated.

All this is quite contrary to the dominant right-wing perspective in Washington. So now we will see whether those who were so thrilled by the Armitage scoop are honest enough to confront more significant and embarrassing facts. But the fundamental issues have not changed.

Rather than confront Mr. Wilson’s accusations directly, the White House went after him and his wife—and then lied about the involvement of its senior officials in disclosing her identity. The perpetrators of these unpatriotic partisan acts have yet to be punished, and the President, as usual, has failed to uphold his own professed ethical standards. It is a simple matter, and yet still too challenging for the national press to understand.