By ROBERT SCHEER
SPECIAL TO THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
If you can't shoot the messenger, take aim at his wife.
That clearly was the intent of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove in leaking to a reporter that former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent. To try to conceal the fact that the president had lied to the American public about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, Rove attempted to destroy the credibility of two national security veterans and send an intimidating message to any other government officials preparing to publicly tell the truth.
Rove's lawyer now says that Rove didn't break the law against naming covert agents because he didn't know Plame's name and therefore couldn't have revealed it. Perhaps he can use such a technicality in court, but in the meantime he should resign immediately -- or be fired by the president -- for leaking classified information, trying to smear Wilson and possibly endangering Plame's life.
"The White House promised if anyone was involved in the Valerie Plame affair, they would no longer be in this administration," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "I trust they will follow through on this pledge."
The background on this story is crucial. Ambassador Wilson had been honored as a patriot by President George H.W. Bush for standing up to Saddam Hussein in a face-to-face confrontation in Baghdad on the eve of the Persian Gulf War. But in 2003, Wilson committed an unpardonable crime in the eyes of the second Bush White House. He exposed its lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs.
In 16 now infamous words in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, the president -- desperate to gain support for an invasion he was dead set on initiating -- tried to scare Americans into believing Iraq was close to making nuclear weapons. "The British government," he told the nation, "has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." But the key documents that the claim was based on already had been proved to be fakes, and other intelligence reports along these lines were extremely speculative.
In fact, it was a CIA-organized mission by Wilson to the African country of Niger (where he had served as ambassador) that determined the reports were false. Wilson was therefore shocked to hear the uranium claims in the president's speech. When he exposed the chicanery in a New York Times commentary, Wilson became a prime target for a White House smear job.
According to e-mails that Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper sent to his editor (which were revealed by Newsweek over the weekend), Rove told Cooper that Wilson's devastating expos & eacute; should be discounted because the Niger fact-finding trip had been authorized by Wilson's wife, who worked at the CIA.
This was three days before Robert Novak, citing two White House sources, outed Plame as a CIA agent in his column and put forward the same notion: that Wilson's information was suspect because the CIA had hired him on the advice of his wife.
In the end, though, what Rove's leak and Novak's column really exposed was the depravity of the administration's deliberate use of a false WMD threat and its willingness to go after anyone willing to tell the truth about it.
It's ironic that the expertise of this couple should be turned against them by a White House that has demonstrated nothing but incompetence in dealing with the WMD issue. But clearly truth and competence are virtues easily shed by the Bush administration in the pursuit of political advantage, even when this partisan game jeopardizes national security.
This is the most important issue raised by the Plame scandal. It has been unfortunately obscured by the secondary debate in the case: whether reporters should ever reveal their sources. Yet what the emerging Rove scandal demonstrates is the ease with which a wily top White House official can subvert the Bill of Rights' protection of the free press to serve the tawdriest of political ends.
X Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for the Times.