consortiumnews.com

'Plame-gate' & Myth of the Renegade Aide

By Robert Parry
October 27, 2005

One of the common myths of official Washington is that most political scandals result from overly aggressive aides operating out of control – the Watergate “third-rate burglary” or Iran-Contra’s “men of zeal” – with top officials getting in trouble only later by trying to cover the mess up.

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 Iraq.

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 information.

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.

Cheney Implicated

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 Tenet.

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 Niger assignment.

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.

Probe Begins

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 information.

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 they end.

Nixon’s Scandal

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.

Iran-Contra 

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 Poindexter.

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 of command.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

Back to Home Page