Shades of Nixon?

October 03, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Up to now, the most distinguishing aspect of the George W. Bush administration has been how ideological it has been in both domestic and foreign policy.

At home, it has adhered to the conservative orthodoxy that the best friend of an American -- especially a wealthy American -- is a tax cut. And abroad, it has been guided by a sense of superpower superiority that dictates that it's best to go it alone -- unless setbacks dictate asking for help from others.

The first ideological path requires deep tax cuts even in the face of -- indeed, while contributing to -- a mushrooming federal deficit. The second drives a huge wedge between this country and most of the rest of the world, as embodied by the United Nations.

But now a different aspect of the Bush administration has surfaced that is chillingly Nixonian: its reported leaking to several reporters of the name of an undercover CIA employee in retaliation for her husband's outspoken criticism of President Bush's Iraq war policy.

One of the trademarks of the Richard Nixon presidency was its low-balling of ideology in favor of the politics of revenge. Spying and wiretapping on real or perceived critics became commonplace, as did politically motivated Internal Revenue Service examinations of tax returns.

A spirit of vengeance permeated those years, with the compilation of Mr. Nixon's "enemies list," comprising individuals, mostly in the news media, regarded by the president and his closest cronies as prime targets of administration harassment.

Now we have the case of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. He obviously fell into disfavor with the Bush White House for publicly disputing the president's statement in his last State of the Union message that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy uranium from Africa.

Mr. Wilson, a retired diplomat experienced in African affairs, nearly a year earlier had been sent by the CIA to investigate such reports and returned saying that rumors to that effect could not be verified. In an article in The New York Times in July, he charged that the administration nevertheless had used the rumors "to exaggerate the Iraq threat" in the buildup to Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq. He has continued voicing the charge.

Now his allegation is that the White House is on a mission of intimidation and that White House political adviser Karl Rove at the least condoned the "outing" of Mr. Wilson's wife in violation of a law making it a crime to divulge the identity of any CIA covert operative. A White House spokesman has denied that Mr. Rove was involved.

Nevertheless, the Justice Department, responding to a CIA request and with Mr. Bush's stated approval, has begun an investigation of the reported White House leaks. The columnist who first broke the story, Robert Novak, says he learned that Mr. Wilson's wife was a CIA employee in an interview he initiated and not as a result of a leak. But other reporters are said to have been the recipients of leaks in the matter.

The distinction, it seems to me, is critical. If Mr. Novak initiated the interview, then he clearly has the obligation to protect his source. But if some White House rumormonger undertook, unsolicited, to plant the story with other reporters, I don't see where, unless they had some prior understanding with the leaker, they have any obligation to protect him in his efforts of intimidation.

Whether any such reporters will be willing to cooperate with Attorney General John Ashcroft's investigation, however, is the question. The confidentiality for sources is so ingrained among the press that it's likely they will decline to "out" an administration official who "outed" Mr. Wilson's wife.

In any event, the episode, with its overtones of the Nixon White House, is a most unwelcome commentary on this already beleaguered administration.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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