Beyond the Plame game

November 01, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- The suspense is finally over. The case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the vice president's chief of staff, is much bigger than who outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. It lays bare the White House determination to discredit anyone who punched holes in its rationale for war.

The Plame case, in which Mr. Libby is charged with lying to FBI agents and the grand jury by telling them he learned Ms. Plame's name from the press, is a bizarre tale of White House pettiness with enormous ramifications.

Ms. Plame apparently was targeted to get back at her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who had challenged White House claims about Iraq's prewar nuclear program. For this reason, she was considered "fair game," in the immortal phrase of President Bush's close aide, Karl Rove, who remains under investigation in the case.

To reprise: In February 2002, the CIA dispatched Mr. Wilson to Niger. His task: to investigate the story that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq in the 1990s. The White House wanted to use the Niger story to buttress its case that Saddam Hussein had restarted his nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Wilson reported back to the CIA that he doubted any uranium had been sold to Iraq. Independent of his report, the CIA and the State Department repeatedly raised questions about the veracity of intelligence on Niger, including British intelligence. In October 2002, CIA Director George J. Tenet warned the president off referring to African uranium in a speech. Yet Mr. Bush cited the Niger claim in his 2003 State of the Union address.

By March 2003, the documents on which the Niger charges were based were revealed to be crude forgeries, passed to the CIA by foreign sources. Post-invasion controversy grew over whether the administration had manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction or used specious evidence.

In May 2003, Mr. Wilson fueled the controversy with leaks to the media about his trip to Niger. On July 6, he published an op-ed in The New York Times . Shortly after it ran, the administration admitted the uranium claims had been mistaken. Then came the retaliation against Mr. Wilson.

On July 14, 2003, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that "two administration officials" told him that Ms. Plame was behind Mr. Wilson's trip to Niger. The implication was that Mr. Wilson's trip was a case of nepotism.

The point of the Plame affair is that a CIA operative was outed to get even with her husband.

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is apparently unable to prove that White House officials knew Ms. Plame was an undercover spy, which could make her outing a criminal offense. It's hard to believe Mr. Libby didn't get this information when he queried the CIA about the Wilsons. It's also hard to believe Vice President Dick Cheney didn't learn Ms. Plame's status when he discussed her with Mr. Tenet in June 2003 and then with Mr. Libby.

Mr. Fitzgerald stressed at a news conference Friday that Mr. Libby's alleged perjury has thwarted discovery of which officials did leak Ms. Plame's status. The whole Plame affair is about White House reluctance to provide accurate information on issues linked to the Iraq war.

There was plenty of evidence that the Niger uranium story was false before the 2003 State of the Union address. But the White House didn't want or seek to know it. The FBI has yet to complete its investigation into the Niger forgeries.

The charges against Mr. Libby imply that the White House is still stonewalling in the Plame case. But, as with the Niger forgeries, the truth is bound to come out.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is trubin@phillynews.com.

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