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CIA Leak Is a Poor Excuse for a Scandal

October 02, 2003|Max Boot | Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of the "Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power" (Basic Books, 2002).

The Democrats seem to have learned a valuable lesson from Republicans about how to attack a popular president: First, take some complicated incident that no one outside the Beltway understands. Trumpet it as a "scandal." Denounce the president as the biggest scoundrel this side of Spiro Agnew. Demand that the FBI, an independent counsel, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and every gumshoe under the sun investigate this shocking breach of ethics. Then sit back and watch the election returns roll in.

It was a surefire winner for the GOP with Whitewater. That's how Bob Dole became president in 1996, right? No doubt this strategy will work equally well for the Democrats today as they desperately try to turn the tale of Joseph C. Wilson IV and his Mata Hari wife into a full-blown scandal.

For those of you who have more important things to do, let us briefly recapitulate the action so far: Wilson, a former U.S. diplomat and a vocal critic of the administration, was dispatched by the CIA last year to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from that African country. He came back with a clean bill of health for Saddam Hussein. When this didn't dissuade President Bush from invading Iraq, Wilson was outraged. He wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times on July 6 accusing the president of bamboozling the public into the war. The administration replied by pooh-poohing his original report (which was never written down) and suggesting that British intelligence sources provided confirmation of the Iraq-Africa uranium link.

Robert Novak wrote a column on this incident in which he suggested that Wilson's Niger assignment was the result of nepotism because his wife worked for the CIA. Wilson furiously charged that the administration had leaked this information in an attempt to intimidate him and demanded that Karl Rove -- whom he named as the leaker without providing any evidence -- be "frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

At the request of the CIA, the Justice Department is now investigating. But the media and the Democrats won't be satisfied until some sort of special counsel is appointed, even though the independent counsel statute was euthanized by both parties a few years ago.

By all means, let's have an inquiry. If in fact someone in the administration deliberately leaked the name of a CIA undercover operative, he or she is a creep who should go to the slammer.

But it's far from clear that this leak was intended to "silence" Wilson (which it certainly hasn't), much less to harm his wife, as he alleges. It's true that these kinds of revelations can cost lives, as they did in the 1970s when renegade CIA agent Philip Agee blew the cover of some officers operating abroad. But by all accounts, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is not operating undercover abroad, at least not at the moment. She seems to work as an analyst at Spook Central in Langley, Va.

Naming her is still wrong, but it is not the equivalent, as former Nixon counsel John Dean suggested, of setting up "a hit" on her. It may not even be illegal because the statute in question, the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, covers only a "covert agent" who "is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States." It's not clear whether Plame fits that description.

All this is murky, not nearly as clear-cut as the "scandal" brigade would have us believe. (Sort of like Whitewater.) Unfortunately, this imbroglio is distracting attention from a genuine and major scandal: the failures of our intelligence agencies.

The CIA's incapacity was painfully exposed after 9/11. The agency claimed that it was impossible to get inside a close-knit group like Al Qaeda, even though a Marin County airhead named John Walker Lindh walked straight into jihad headquarters.

The CIA's record on Iraq is equally dismal. After the 1991 Gulf War the agency was surprised to find that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program was much more advanced than it had believed. After the 2003 war, it was surprised to find that his weapons program was much less advanced than it had believed.

Granted, Iraq is what's known in the intelligence business as a "hard target," but this knowledge gap should still be cause for alarm. Former CIA officers such as Bob Baer and Reuel Gerecht have been warning for years about the agency's faults. According to their indictment, few case officers have intimate knowledge of local languages and cultures, most of them use diplomatic cover (which is no cover at all if you want to hide your affiliation with the U.S. government) and they disdain virtually all risky operations.

Some of this has changed since 9/11, but not all. At worst, who said what about Joe Wilson's wife is a minor scandal. The failures of our intelligence community constitute a major scandal that's not getting nearly enough attention.

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