The Magazine

The Case of the
Missing Crime

The CIA leaker has been found. No law was broken. Why is the prosecutor still going after Scooter Libby?

Sep 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 02 • By CLARICE FELDMAN
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The New York Times and Washington Post are hard at work airbrushing history to obscure their role in promoting Joseph C. Wilson's incredible tale of his Mission to Niger and subsequent fantasy of martyrdom at the hands of Karl Rove. Both add insult to injury. While minimizing their own responsibility for the three-year witchhunt for an imagined White House conspiracy, they still suggest that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby--Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff and the only man indicted in the case--committed a crime for which he must be held accountable.

Really? It would appear that the Fourth Estate has been as inattentive to the criminal case as it was to the facts that led up to it. The case against Libby is as weak as the basis for the investigation was, and the animus that impelled it so distorted the investigative process as to make its continuation a travesty. It's long past time for Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to do the right thing and drop the charges.

We now know that the July 2003 leak that launched this case came from the State Department, not the White House. Columnist Robert Novak wondered (as did many in Washington) why such an acid critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy as Joe Wilson--not a spook but a retired foreign service officer and Clinton NSC staffer--had been chosen by the CIA to investigate Saddam Hussein's interest in Niger's uranium. So at the end of an hour-long interview with Colin Powell's top aide at the State Department, Richard Armitage, Novak put the question to him. Armitage replied, in so many words, here's a good nugget for your column: It was Wilson's wife's idea to send him, she works at the CIA. Novak confirmed the gossip and included it as a detail in his next column. It was, in many respects, a routine Washington transaction between a political columnist and a well-placed source. All these details, in their essentials, were known to the Justice Department by October 2003. Why, then, was a special prosecutor unleashed two months after that? Why were reporters subpoenaed, compelled to testify, even jailed? Why is Libby still under indictment and threatened with prison in a trial expected to begin next January? Let's review the origins of this sorry story.

A former envoy to Iraq, Wilson was a frequent TV guest in the weeks and months before the Iraq war, never suggesting that the Bush administration was relying on false intelligence or that he had played any role in gathering intelligence on Iraq. After appearing before a May 2, 2003, hearing of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, he and his wife, Valerie Plame, were interviewed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who was interested that no WMDs had yet turned up in Iraq. Without naming his sources, Kristof reported that a former ambassador had been sent to Niger by Vice President Cheney, had "debunked" forged evidence of a Niger-Iraq uranium deal, that his report had been sent to the White House, and yet the president had repeated the phony uranium story in his State of the Union Address. All of these claims were false, but the White House was unable to mount a vigorous defense.

On July 6, 2003, with press interest piqued by Kristof's report, a similar account from the Washington Post's Walter Pincus and other intimations of a possible Watergate sequel, Wilson went public as the former ambassador in an op-ed for the New York Times, which repeated, in somewhat muted form, the original Kristof account. Taken together, the pieces painted a picture of an administration that had deliberately lied to justify war in Iraq.

Wilson, as would later become clear, had never debunked anything. The forgeries had not shown up until eight months
after his February 2002 trip to Niger. Indeed, his interviews with officials there, the Senate Intelligence Committee would later conclude, "lent more credibility, not less, to the reported Niger-Iraq uranium deal." Bush's State of the Union claim--"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"--was sound. But the appearance of Wilson's op-ed set Washington afire that week. The White House, in a poorly considered move, said it had been a mistake to include the claim about African uranium in the State of the Union. CIA director George Tenet publicly accepted blame. And in the midst of this appeared Novak's column, reporting that Wilson's "wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative" and that "two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger."