But the reality – which is relevant again amid the
probe into the outing of a CIA officer – is that a principal official is
almost always lurking somewhere in the background of the original crime,
sending signals or pulling strings with the expectation that, if caught,
a subordinate will take the fall.
So now, much like the historical arguments over
whether the Watergate break-in was approved by Richard Nixon or which
Iran-Contra dealings were green-lighted by Ronald Reagan and George H.W.
Bush, the new question is whether Dick Cheney and George W. Bush winked
at their top aides leaking the identity of Valerie Plame as retaliation
for her husband exposing a deception used to take America to war in
The “Plame-gate” probe has focused on Vice
President Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby and President Bush’s
deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. Based on what’s now publicly known, it
appears that Libby and Rove at minimum misled investigators about how
they learned of Plame’s identity and how they disseminated that
Yet while special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald
examines whether Libby and Rove committed crimes, official Washington
has mostly averted its eyes from a potentially bigger question: Did
their superiors, Cheney and/or Bush, encourage or order the leak?
If so, based on history, one of two outcomes would
seem likely: either a constitutional crisis would result, with at least
one of the top two U.S. executive officers implicated in a felony
conspiracy, or a conveniently truncated investigation would follow, not
getting much higher than Libby and Rove.
The past two major Republican scandals – Watergate
and Iran-Contra – represent those two alternatives, the first leading to
Nixon’s resignation and the second to the protection of Reagan and
George Bush Sr. Conceivably, “Plame-gate” could end in some middle
ground if, say, Cheney were forced to resign but not George Bush Jr.
Already, the emerging evidence has linked Cheney to
the leak case. The New York Times reported that more than a month before
Plame was outed in a July 14, 2003, column by Robert Novak, the vice
president was told about Plame’s identity by then-CIA Director George
At the time, Cheney was angry that Plame’s husband,
former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was challenging a chief rationale for
the invasion of Iraq.
Wilson was telling reporters that he had been sent
by the CIA to check out reports of Iraq trying to buy enriched uranium
from Niger and had concluded that the claims were false. But the White
House had used the Niger allegations anyway in making its terrifying
case that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was on course to build a nuclear bomb.
Tenet divulged to the irascible Cheney that
Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson’s
fact-finding trip to Niger – information that Cheney then passed on to
Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libby’s notes as
described by lawyers in the case, the New York Times reported.
“The notes do not show that Mr. Cheney knew the
name of Mr. Wilson's wife,” the Times wrote. “But they do show that Mr.
Cheney did know and told Mr. Libby that Ms. Wilson was employed by the
Central Intelligence Agency and that she may have helped arrange her
husband’s trip.” [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]
Those two facts – Plame’s work for the CIA and her
role in Wilson’s Niger trip – then became the centerpieces of the
administration’s behind-the-scenes campaign in June/July 2003 to
disparage Wilson. Rove, Libby and possibly other administration
officials told journalists that Wilson’s wife had helped get him the
For instance, on June 23, 2003 – 11 days after the
Cheney-Libby conversation – Libby briefed New York Times reporter Judith
Miller about Wilson and may then have passed on the tip that Wilson’s
wife worked at the CIA. Libby added more details in a second meeting
with Miller on July 8, 2003, when he told Miller that Wilson’s wife
worked at a CIA unit responsible for weapons intelligence and
non-proliferation, the Times reported.
It was in the context in those July 8 notes where
Miller wrote down the words “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of
Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name, although Miller said she couldn’t recall who
gave her that name.
In a third conversation, by telephone on July 12,
2003, Miller and Libby returned to the Wilson topic. Miller’s notes
contain a reference to a “Victoria Wilson,” another misspelled reference
to Wilson’s wife, Miller said. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]
Two days later, on July 14, Novak’s column, citing
two administration sources, outed Plame and portrayed Wilson’s Niger
trip as a case of nepotism.
Furious that Plame’s covert identity had been
blown, CIA officers pressed Tenet to refer the case to the Justice
Department to determine whether the disclosure violated a law barring
the willful exposure of a CIA officer. An investigation ensued.
Responding to initial questions, Libby and Rove
reportedly suggested they may have heard about Plame’s CIA job from
reporters and just recycled the rumors without even using Plame’s name.
But Fitzgerald’s investigation discovered that the
White House officials had clued reporters in on Plame’s identity, not
vice versa. The disclosure that Cheney passed the information to Libby
buttressed that point and added to the appearance that Libby was trying
to protect his boss.
Some U.S. intelligence veterans are reportedly
furious, too, with Tenet for telling Cheney about Plame’s job in the
first place. Although Cheney had adequate clearances to hear the secret,
he had no compelling need to know and thus Tenet appears to have
violated a central code of intelligence tradecraft by volunteering this
Rove’s participation raises other troubling
questions, because he had even less legitimate need to be given a
sensitive and discreet secret like the identity of a CIA officer. But
it’s still unclear who brought Rove in on the anti-Wilson operation and
whether Bush knew that his top political adviser was involved.
Another major unanswered question about
Fitzgerald’s investigation is how high he has traced the conspiracy to
damage Wilson. In that sense, the Watergate and Iran-Contra models can
be instructive in terms of how political scandals originate – and how
In the case of Watergate, as White House
tape-recordings now make clear, Nixon was the instigator of the broader
use of an extra-legal Plumbers unit to crank down on leaks after
publication of the secret Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War.
On July 1, 1971, Nixon lectured White House chief
of staff H.R. Haldeman and national security adviser Henry Kissinger
about the need to do whatever it takes, including a break-in at the
Brookings Institution where Nixon suspected he could find incriminating
information about Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg.
“We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy,” Nixon
fumed. “They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that
clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No. Get
it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out
and have it cleaned out in a way that makes somebody else” responsible.
Nixon criticized Attorney General John Mitchell for
worrying about what “is technically correct” in countering those who
leaked the secret history. “Now, how do you fight this [Ellsberg case]?”
Nixon continued. “You can’t fight this with gentlemanly gloves … We’ll
kill these sons of bitches.”
Though Nixon’s subordinates often ignored some of
his wilder demands, they implemented enough of his schemes to set in
motion a political espionage operation that eventually led to a break-in
at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate
building in May 1972.
When Nixon pressed for more intelligence about
Democratic strategies, his re-election campaign ordered a second
break-in on June 17, 1972, but that operation ended in disaster when the
burglars were arrested. [For more details, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Nixon and his inner circle quickly began
disparaging the break-in as the work of some out-of-control operatives
engaged in what became known as a “third-rate burglary.” To keep the
burglars quiet, Nixon’s team spread around hush money and tried to
undermine the FBI investigation.
Though the tapes reveal that Nixon took a direct
role in the cover-up, even today it’s unclear whether Nixon specifically
ordered the Watergate break-ins or simply created the pressure-filled
climate that led his subordinates to conclude that Nixon wanted it done.
Nevertheless, faced with court-ordered release of
the White House tapes and confronting impeachment proceedings in
Congress, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.
Twelve years later, another political scandal broke
in Washington over clandestine operations that funneled guns to contra
rebels fighting in Nicaragua and that sold weapons to Iran’s
fundamentalist Islamic regime, which was then labeled a terrorist state.
President Ronald Reagan, working closely with Vice
President George H.W. Bush, approved the broad outlines for these
activities even though they violated a variety of U.S. laws and required
the active deception of Congress and the public.
When the two operations – the Nicaraguan contra
support and the Iranian arms sales – were exposed in fall 1986,
Reagan-Bush administration officials continued to lie in denying the
U.S. government’s participation.
However, the scandal reached a breaking point – and
got its name, Iran-Contra – when investigators discovered that White
House aide Oliver North had diverted some profits from the Iran arms
sales into the Nicaraguan contra supply fund.
The Iran-Contra scandal raised weighty questions
about the right of the Executive to conduct what amounted to a
subterranean foreign policy. But Congress had little stomach for
“another Watergate.” Plus, an expanding conservative infrastructure in
Washington fought hard to protect Reagan and Bush.
Soon, the national press corps was focusing only on
the narrowest part of the scandal, North’s diversion of the Iranian
profits to the contras. Other related issues, such as illegal
money-laundering and associations with cocaine traffickers, were deemed
too complicated or beyond responsible discourse.
In Congress, conciliatory Democrats – led by the
likes of Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana – tried to avoid partisan
bitterness by largely laying the blame on a few “men of zeal” and
faulting Reagan only for inattention to details. The role of the elder
George Bush was left almost entirely unexamined.
Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh did
try to get at the larger issues by bringing a broad conspiracy
indictment. But the White House fended off the charges by exploiting its
control of classified documents and refusing to release papers that
judges had deemed necessary for trial.
Walsh was forced to narrow his charges to more
technical issues such as lying to Congress or obstructing the
investigation. That opened Walsh to accusations that his probe was much
ado about nothing and that he was on a costly vendetta.
Walsh did win convictions against some Iran-Contra
conspirators, although conservative judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals
in Washington cited legal technicalities in overturning the two biggest
convictions – against North and former national security adviser John
By 1991, Walsh finally broke through the determined
Republican cover-up by locating a cache of withheld documents. He
concluded that high-level officials, including Reagan and Bush, had
played much bigger roles – and that their illegal foreign operations
were much more extensive – than had been generally assumed.
But Walsh’s new offensive encountered a fierce
counterattack from the growing conservative news media as well as
disinterest from the mainstream press. Across the Washington spectrum –
from the Washington Post to the Washington Times – Walsh was mocked as a
modern-day Captain Ahab obsessively pursuing the White Whale. [For
details, see Walsh’s Firewall.]
When President George H.W. Bush finally put an end
to Walsh’s probe by pardoning six Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas
Eve 1992, official Washington breathed a collective sigh of relief. The
national news media barely took note that Bush’s pardons also had
protected him from possible indictment for his own withholding of
documents. [For details, see Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
So history suggests that whatever Fitzgerald’s
investigation concludes about Libby, Rove and the leaking of Valerie
Plame’s identity, there will be strong resistance from official
Washington if the prosecutor tries to track the criminality up the chain