FOR FOUR YEARS, A slow-motion war between the CIA and the Bush administration has been unfolding over America's airwaves and on its front pages. A principal weapon in this war has been the deliberate leaking of information to the media.
When the history of this damaging episode is written, two leaks will stand out as having been most consequential. One of them is famous: the alleged leak to columnist Robert Novak that led to the compromising of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
But there was another big leak that no one seems to care about: the leak of the CIA's referral to the Justice Department concerning the Plame matter. That second disclosure, perhaps even more than the initial leak, set off the chain of events that resulted in the naming of a special prosecutor and finds us now anticipating indictments of senior White House officials.
Some additional relevant details: The CIA referral to the Justice Department was classified, an intelligence source tells The Weekly Standard. Anyone who disclosed the existence of the referral and described its contents broke the law. The agency, however, has thus far refused to send a referral to the Justice Department that could result in an investigation into the source and effects of that leak. Why? An intelligence source tells The Weekly Standard that there are limits--of time and manpower--to how many such referrals the CIA can make. Perhaps. But there's another possible explanation: The second leak came from the CIA itself, and lawyers there are reluctant to call for an investigation for fear of what such an investigation might reveal.
On Friday, September 26, 2003, NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell and MSNBC's Alex Johnson broke a big story on the MSNBC website. "The CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that the White House broke federal laws by revealing the identity of one of its undercover employees in retaliation against the woman's husband, a former ambassador who publicly criticized President Bush's since-discredited claim that Iraq had sought weapons-grade uranium from Africa, NBC News has learned."
This report came after a lull in the narrative. Joseph Wilson, Plame's husband, had accused the Bush administration of disclosing his wife's identity to retaliate for his "truth-telling." He boasted in speeches that he would mount a campaign to get Karl Rove "frog-marched" out of the White House in handcuffs. And while many reporters in Washington may have been sympathetic to Wilson, few took his threat seriously.
That changed with the news from NBC that the CIA had referred the case to the Justice Department for investigation. Other news organizations scrambled to catch up. Over the next two weeks the New York Times would run nearly three dozen stories on the case, the Washington Post more than forty. News reports noted the close relationship between Attorney General John Ashcroft and the White House. Editorials called for Ashcroft to recuse himself. Prominent Democrats stepped up their calls for a special prosecutor.
Trying to determine the source of leaks is a popular parlor game in Washington. The obvious question: Who does the leak hurt and who does it help? With that in mind, the leak of the CIA referral achieved two important results. First, it embarrassed the White House and put pressure on the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor. A September 29, 2003, news story in the New York Times is illustrative. It reads, "The very fact that Mr. Tenet referred the matter to the Justice Department comes as a major political embarrassment to a White House that is famously tight-lipped, and a president who has repeatedly vowed that his administration would never leak classified information."
The second effect of the leak was equally obvious. It produced a series of news stories in which journalists reported uncritically the claims of the CIA and Joseph Wilson regarding the original Iraq-Niger uranium deal and stated unequivocally that the White House had simply ignored their strong warnings about the intelligence.
From the same September 29, 2003, New York Times story: "The agent is the wife of Joseph C. Wilson 4th, a former ambassador to Gabon. It was Mr. Wilson who, more than a year and a half ago, concluded in a report to the CIA that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium ore in Niger in an effort to build nuclear arms. But his report was ignored, and Ambassador Wilson has been highly critical of how the administration handled intelligence claims regarding Iraq's nuclear weapons programs, suggesting that Mr. Bush's aides and Vice President Dick Cheney's office tried to inflate the threat."