In the sorry spectacle of the ongoing Karl Rove/Judith Miller/Matt Cooper episode, it’s easy to forget just what inspired this whole tawdry mess. Remember, it all dates back to 2002 and early 2003 when the Bush administration was trying to make its weak case for war in Iraq look stronger. This made it necessary, according to the judgment of Rove, his accomplices, and their journalistic patsy, Robert Novak, to engage in a campaign to smear Joe Wilson, who was dispatched by the CIA to Africa to investigate George W. Bush’s false assertions that Saddam Hussein tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger for use in nuclear weapons.
When Wilson came back and cast doubt on the claims—going public in The New York Times when the administration continued to stick to the story he had personally investigated and discovered to be false—the Bush team pushed back hard, reportedly leaking to Bob Novak and several other journalists that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA and got him the assignment. Novak was the only one who took the bait, blowing her cover in his syndicated column by naming her as a CIA "operative." Then, this past Sunday in Newsweek we learned that White House advisor Karl Rove was the one who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to at least one reporter, Time’s Matt Cooper, despite both his and White House spokesman Scott McClellan’s explicit denials of just this fact over the past two years.
Under current law, such a leak on the part of a government official could constitute a felony. According to the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, a federal employee with access to classified information who is convicted of making an unauthorized disclosure about a covert agent faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $50,000 in fines.
There’s been a lot of talk over the past several days about whether Rove could be found guilty under the Act or not. The critical issue is that the statute apparently doesn’t require specific intent for the leak of information to be a crime—it merely requires an act of disclosure. As Mickey Kaus points out, the law punishes anyone who "intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information." So, according to this section of the Act, Karl Rove looks to be such an individual.
But there’s a larger question here than just the legal one, and that’s the moral one. Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame were both life-long public servants. Wilson, whom the right is seeking to smear as a partisan-minded Democrat—not that he wouldn’t have the right to be if he chose—contributed to the presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, and took many hazardous and unpleasant duties on behalf of his country. When the CIA sent him to Niger, he knew that the politically smart—and self-promotional—course to take would be to hew to the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Perle line without gumming up the system. Instead he told the truth and they came after him.
Valerie Plame, meanwhile, lived her entire life under cover—no small or easy thing—in the service of her country (how many journalists and Republican pols or consultants can say the same?), and for her trouble, has seen her cover revealed and both herself and her husband smeared across the land. Her former colleague, Larry Johnson, writing in TPM Café, tells you what kind of person and patriot she was. (The Rove team is now even spreading rumors, believe it or not, that Wilson was the source who blew his wife’s cover, if you can believe that.)
So here’s my question: where is the conservative outrage? After all, Bush administration officials—possibly Rove, possibly others—working with Robert Novak, outed an undercover CIA agent, blew numerous operations, cost the country millions of dollars, quite possibly endangered national security and could conceivably have cost lives. And they did it all for pure political advantage. There was a reason that the law in question was passed, and it was because all patriotic Americans were outraged by the actions of former CIA officer Philip Agee, who, having defected to Cuba, was blowing the covers of CIA officers in the late ’70 and early ’80s, when Agee began publishing the officers’ names to ruin the agency’s intelligence-gathering capabilities and scuttle its covert operations. So why do Rove, Novak and company get a pass from virtually the entire conservative movement? Would the Wall Street Journal editors publish screeds telling America to "Thank Philip Agee" and calling him a "Whistleblower" they way they do for Rove?
Bush understood some of this once upon a time. The record shows that at the September 29, 2003, White House daily press briefing, McClellan was asked a series of very specific questions about the individual who betrayed undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity and agreed that that person should "lose their job in the White House." McClellan also explicitly denied Rove was the leaker on October 1, October 7, and October 10, 2003.
So why is the president retaining on his staff in the most powerful day-to-day job in government a man who apparently treats the national security of the nation and the lives of its dedicated public servants as pawns in his political chess match? And what are CNN and The Washington Post doing keeping his cowardly accomplice? Isn’t that the kind of thing about which patriotic conservatives profess to care? Or are we liberals—together with those folks at the CIA who demanded this investigation—the only true patriots anymore?
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.