Thursday, October 27, 2005

In the Middle: CIA Leak Case

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left 
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
Subject: CIA Leak Case

Phillip, it's late on a Tuesday night as I write these words. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has not yet announced the results of his two-year investigation into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. But it's coming soon, as soon as Wednesday, so I think this is as good a time as any – as Washington waits and the press freaks itself out in anticipation and the President talks about "background noise" and
some make allusions to "worse than Watergate" – to ask:

What's it all really mean, then?

A lot hinges on whether or not anyone – and particularly high ranking officials – gets indicted, obviously. If no one gets indicted, the White House breathes a huge sigh of relief and hopes that the darkest night has passed. If there are indictments, much hinges on whether or not top aides I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff) and Karl "Bush's Brain" Rove fall in that group.

If Libby, Rove, or both get indicted, it will be at the least a damaging blow to an administration that has been beset by failures (see: Social Security reform), bungles (see: Harriet Miers), and charges of incompetence (see: “You’re doing a hell of a job, Brownie) throughout 2005.

So I ask: if there are high-level indictments, will it mean that the Bush administration will be put on trial (by the media and, to an extent, the public) for misleading the nation into war with Iraq?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Already on Wednesday, I'm reading that no indictments are due today, so it seems that the mystery and the tension will ratchet up a little tighter over the next day or two. The grand jury investigating the leak of Valerie Plame's name, role, and relationship to Joseph Wilson expires on Friday, so we're down to the wire.

What's it all about, Alfie?

In one sense, I think it is seriously "inside baseball." I bet a survey of even registered voters would reveal that a miniscule percentage of people are even aware of the issues in play here, and that even fewer actually care. If indictments are brought, that could change, but for now, one has to work pretty hard to get too excited about this. The idea that this could be "worse than Watergate" seems to be pure political posturing on a number of levels. So far I've seen nothing which suggests that this will even rise to the level of scandal that plagued the Clinton administration, and most of those "scandals" went nowhere.

Consider that, for better or for worse, we have different expectations from the White House than we used to. Consider also that the Watergate scandal involved actual crimes being indisputably committed, the sorts of crimes you or I would spend time in jail for committing. I don't think that the American people are going to get too excited about the idea that someone mentioned that an ideological opponent might have had a not-so-obvious axe to grind, even if that someone is the Vice President of the United States of America. If true, it might be even be illegal, but it is hardly the sort of law that you or I would expect to encounter. If true, and if illegal, crimes should be prosecuted, but I don't expect the average person on the street to care very much. Not any more than they cared about Martha Stewart's "insider trading," say.

All of that said, President Bush campaigned on a platform that included "restoring integrity to the White House," and in so doing I think he set a high standard for himself, a standard he has not been able to meet. He promised to hold his staffers accountable, but it is beginning to appear that when it comes to this leak, he either knew something on which he didn't act, or deliberately didn't ask questions to avoid knowing it, or that he was lied to, in which case he should act to remove the liar from whatever position he or she holds. Anything less is an about-face in his stated policy.

I suspect that he will not do anything of the sort, and has therefore failed in his goal to "restore integrity to the White House."

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I have to disagree with you on the "inside baseball" description, Phillip. While most Americans likely don't understand the specifics of the case, I believe many are aware that high level members of the government may have been involved in the outing of an undercover agent for political gain and in an effort to cover up parts of the campaign that led to the war in Iraq, most notably President Bush's famous 2003 State of Union declaration that Saddam Hussein had attempted to obtain uranium yellow cake from Niger.

Therefore, there's a Perfect Storm that could erupt as early as today, Wednesday now: a government campaign to expose an undercover agent in order to cover up lies made in an effort to push us into war. That's huge stuff in my book, much much bigger than anything Whitewater could have become.

In that vein, I find it laughable that some conservatives are already griping that if Fitzgerald comes back with indictments for perjury, as opposed to other crimes, that it means that there was no wrong doing. President Clinton was nearly impeached for just this: covering up an affair in the midst of an investigation into a real estate deal! And
of course, Republican Washington cheered it on, pushed it on, dreamed it all on.

In any event, indictments will certainly end any kind of phase in which the public is not interested in this story (which seems impossibly hard to believe already). Bush's and Congress's poll numbers are already kerplunk in the tank, and indictments now have the real capability of setting Washington into deep freeze until the 2006 elections.

So I find it interesting that you seem to think that possible crimes in the White House are "not a big deal" on the one hand, and yet indicate that Bush may not have lived up to a key campaign promise on the other.

In the end, this case may be about the distinction between hard, clean Machiavellian politics and crossing the line. Many, and I include myself in this group, believe that Bush and his supporters have been close to or crossed this line many times in the past, from character assassinating fellow Republican John McCain in the 2000 primaries all the way through the Swift Boat nonsense of 2004.

If laws were broken, those responsible should be punished. This is an administration that has hinged itself on integrity and protecting our national security. If an undercover CIA agent was exposed to advance a political agenda, it is a severe wound to the office of the presidency and our national reputation. If misleading statements were made to lead us to war, it's very possible that our government has blood on its hands.

This smallish story from 2003 has the real potential to topple a presidency and make us all look long and hard on who we want in power and how we wish to be governed.

Looks like I get the Big Picture award this week!

What say you?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Somehow, and most people blame talk radio, the American people by and large developed the opinion that our last president was plagued by scandal. Misunderstandings, half-truths, and outright lies were mixed up with things that really did land people in jail, and the whole thing became huge. It is possible that something like that could happen here, but it certainly doesn't seem to have happened yet, and I think it would take an indictment of Libby, Rove, or Cheney to even have a chance of happening.

Of course, I think the similarities are even more interesting than that, because so many of the attacks against President Clinton were driven by partisan rancor, and it seems from my perspective that a lot of that is true now with President Bush as well. I mentioned in last week's column that statements made in the heat of a partisan debate have a tendency to come back to haunt, and the idea that perjury is either "no big deal" or "worth impeachment" is one example. It would make me laugh if it weren't so sad!

The problem here is that there are many, many unanswered questions, and an indictment won't necessarily answer most of them. Was Valerie Plame undercover? It's a matter of debate among people who should clearly know, so I have to assume partisanship is involved. Was Joseph Wilson ideologically driven? Again, it seems to be an issue, though it probably shouldn't be. Does it matter if the spirit of the law was upheld while it was technically violated? It usually doesn't, unless one has grounds to protest the wording of the law up through to the Supreme Court. What is the actual chain of information? Possibly Cheney told Libby, who told Rove and also New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Someone presumably in that chain told syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who spilled the information into the public. Did Cheney know that Plame was undercover? Did Libby? Does the law make any distinction? Indictments, if they come, will be just the beginning of a long process, and through it all, a lot more people will become involved.

The problem with your vision of a Perfect Storm, as I see it, is that too many people are in the middle of it. Many leading Democrats were as involved in the lead up to the war in Iraq as Republicans, including several of the party's most likely candidates for 2008. Politically speaking, while many people would like to see President Bush pressed as hard or harder on this as President Clinton was during his term in office, the potential collateral damage may prove to be too high a price for the Democratic Party to want to pay.

My distinction between the one hand and the other rests entirely on the difference between my personal opinion (which is that President Bush has already blown it by not upholding his campaign promise of integrity) and how I read the world around me (which says that most people don't really care, at least not at this point). A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll yesterday reported an even split between those who feel that administration officials acted illegally, and those who feel that the administration officials acted legally but unethically. More importantly, in my view, is that the percentage of people who feel that the administration's ethical standards are "excellent" or "good" has fallen from nearly 75% three years ago to 51% this week.

I would hope that we can elect political leaders who will avoid this kind of scandal, but I am beginning to fear that it might be impossible. The people with the integrity we claim to want simply won't run, and the ones who run, we tear apart!

You've been careful, it seems, to use terms like "misleading," which I appreciate. Even so, I think that if the Bush Administration willfully misled the world, rather than falling prey to its own assumptions, they would have taken a different path. I see the situation as one in which the majority of both parties honestly believed the information they were given about Iraq as a threat, though whether we will remember that is doubtful if this eventually turns into the political circus for which some are hoping.

The bottom line for me is that President Bush made a promise he has failed to fulfill, whether anything illegal was done in the end or not. Whether or not a different response to Wilson's July 2003 article would have made a difference in how our country approached Iraq, it certainly would have made a difference in how our country views this president.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I'm not sure where you got your numbers from, Phillip, but according
to the Washington Post:

A new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll reminded the White House of the damage the CIA leak case has already inflicted: Eight in ten people surveyed said that aides had either broken the law or acted unethically.

So, this story is very much on the radar for most people. And as a tense week of waiting rolls on, there are rumblings that we'll be hearing from Patrick Fitzgerald on Thursday. You've taken the position, Phillip, that things won't be serious – or rise to the level of the Lewinsky scandal if I'm reading you correctly – unless Libby, Rove, or Cheney are indicted. Well, I think the chances of that happening (Libby and likely Rove, but not Cheney) are exceedingly high. Much of the political calculations I expressed earlier relied upon this scenario, and it looks as though it will come to pass very shortly.

Now, I see your point about perjury: either it's a bad thing that should be punished, or it's not a big deal. Legally speaking, it shouldn't matter if it's with regard to sex with a White House intern or blowing (if you'll pardon the pun) a CIA agent's cover to hide potentially embarrassing actions by an administration in the run-up to a major war. I take the position that it's a bad thing, particularly when the stakes are so high. President Clinton was nearly impeached because he lied under oath. The circumstances were ludicrous and the prosecutor was clearly on a partisan witch hunt, but that still doesn't make it right.

I also agree (see how I'm trying to find In the Middle ground, kids?) that the circumstances in the Plame Affair, as we currently understand them, are murky at best. It's up to the prosecutor – who by all accounts is apolitical and tough-as-hell – to sort out the facts and prosecute any misdeeds. I doubt that with the spotlight as bright as it is that he will turn in indictments that stand on flimsy factual evidence or legal precedent.

I disagree that Democrats will take much, if any, "collateral damage" from this incident. Polls already show that if elections were held in November 2005, we'd see Democrats trouncing Republican foes across the board. Don't forget that there are a myriad of woes riding on Republican shoulders at the moment: Iraq, high gas prices, continued fallout from Katrina, and so on.

I'm glad to hear you clearly state that you are disappointed in the president's leadership. I also appreciate how you parse out willful lying on the part of the Bush administration pre-invasion from "falling prey to their own assumptions." This is an important point. I'll make the argument that there was a melding of these two factors. September 11, 2001 and early success in Afghanistan led to an exuberant neoconservative faction hell bent on toppling Saddam Hussein and transforming the Middle East into a democratic utopia.

Three of the top neocons who held and continue to exert heavy influence over the president? Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Scooter Libby.

This debate is just getting started and will likely continue over the coming months. Overall, I think a rehash of the why and how we got to where we are is a healthy thing.

New information is going to come out over time, which will help us to put the puzzle together. For instance, Knight Ridder has a rather fascinating piece out called "CIA leak illustrates selective us of intelligence on Iraq":

A Knight Ridder review of the administration's arguments, its own reporting at the time and the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 report shows that the White House followed a pattern of using questionable intelligence, even documents that turned out to be forgeries, to support its case - often leaking classified information to receptive journalists - and dismissing information that undermined the case for war.

The State of the Union speech was one of a number of instances in which Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their aides ignored the qualms of intelligence professionals and instead relied on the claims of Iraqi defectors and other suspect sources or, in the case of Niger, the crudely forged documents.

Now I leave it to you for the last word, good sir.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Amazingly, that poll, from which I quoted earlier, doesn't report than anybody is unaware of the case. And yet The Tonight Show can send a camera crew out on the streets of Los Angeles any afternoon and round up hours of footage of people who can't remember who the Vice President is! I suspect the poll is leaving out a large group of people who responded with something like, "Huh?"

Perjury – lying under oath – should be prosecuted, always. Lying to the American people – which it is possible Cheney has done while not under oath – isn't illegal, but based on the standards Bush has claimed to operate under, should result in Cheney stepping down. That's not me being harder on the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, that's me taking up the gauntlet President Bush threw down.

As far as Democrats needing to be careful politically, I think you radically misestimate things, but time will tell. That majority of Democrats voted in favor of invading Iraq, just as Republicans did. That won't be forgotten, and efforts by Democrats to distance themselves from their votes or blame others for misinformation won't play very well with the American people. Senator Kerry's "I voted against it before I voted for it" is something a lot of people remember, and nobody likes it when adults act like children in trying to avoid responsibility.

Yes, polls indicate that an unnamed Democrat would beat President Bush (who cannot run for re-election) right now (with no campaigning from Bush). But name a specific Democrat, and those numbers will change; they always do. Many have suggested that Bush has finally quit campaigning, since he can't be reelected. That could change, too. I'd be careful about reading too much into those numbers; I seem to remember Bush being beat easily by the same standard before the 2004 election. Then the "unnamed Democrat" became Senator Kerry, and things weren't so close.

There seems to be no question that many people, including politicians and career intelligence officials, let assumptions shape their response to intelligence. There were dissenters as there always are, of course, and since the general perception is that things are going badly, the crowd of dissenters seems to be swelling as quickly as the pool of people who attended Woodstock, whether bona fide or not. All of that forms a backdrop for the issue at hand.

It is easy to say that documents turned out to be forgeries, or that intelligence was questionable in retrospect. The question that should be asked is whether they should reasonably have known that. The answer to that question, I fear, will depend more on partisan politics or the general perception of how the war is going in Iraq than on the actual facts of the case.

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