The CIA leak investigation: Bigger fish, deeper water

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald isn't finished with the Bush White House yet

Winston Churchill once said that "There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at and missed," and last Friday afternoon a lot of Bush partisans were buoyed by the same sentiment. Writing at Power Line, John Hinderaker mused, "Having now read 15 or 20 news stories about what a devastating blow the Lewis Libby indictment was to the administration...I couldn't help wondering: does anyone remember who Al Gore's chief of staff was when he was vice-president? My guess is that the large majority of people who read these stories are asking themselves, 'Scooter who?'"

He's right. On its own, the public fallout from Libby's indictment on five counts of perjury, false statements, and obstruction of justice will be minimal. One could even add that the indictment of Karl Rove would make less difference in the court of popular opinion than most followers of the case think. Poll after poll has shown that only about half of Americans have ever heard of Rove. The gravity of his loss would be strategic: Without him, the great orchestra of White House staffers, congressional GOP foot soldiers, and the Washington press corps would be without a conductor. Meantime, only a very few pundits of the right made mention of the shoe that has not yet dropped. Proving again that crazy is not the same as stupid, Ann Coulter told CNN that the extension of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation "is, like, the worst possible outcome." She is right, too.

Where is Fitzgerald's case headed now? The arc of Plame leak coverage in the press underscores the futility of reading too much into any particular leak from the grand jury. As recently as last Friday, the New York Times and Washington Post were diametrically opposed on the very basic question of whether the probe would continue. (The Times said yes, the Post no.) The trouble is that all the leaks seem to be coming from defense attorneys close to the case, and criminal lawyers a) don't know Fitzgerald's theory of the case, only what he has said to them regarding their clients; and b) are duty-bound, wherever possible, to spin any disclosures they make so as to aid their clients.

But there is one point on which every major news outlet, and presumably every leaker, has fallen into accord in the past week or two. Last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal put it concisely: "With the grand jury in the CIA leak case expected to vote as soon as today to bring charges against White House officials, the two-year probe appears to be focused on the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the chief architects and defenders of the administration's Iraq war policy." The accent belongs on the last clause. Cheney's office is the Pandora's Box of the Bush administration campaign to invade Iraq. Most of the planning as to both the waging and selling of the war occurred under his direction, along with that of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon. It was Cheney who played the point in beating up the CIA for its unhelpful analysis of the non-threat posed by Saddam, and Cheney along with his Defense Department pals who effectively circumvented the CIA by setting up the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon to funnel the administration the kind of intelligence it wanted, largely courtesy of their longtime double-dealing stooge, Ahmed Chalabi.

At this point it's altogether unclear where or when Fitzgerald's investigation will conclude--or simply run into a wall he can't break through. But there's little need to speculate as to how far he's reaching. The investigative reporter Jason Leopold, a former Dow-Jones Newswire reporter who has put the Raw Story website on the map in a new way with his Plame leak reporting, points out that a court filing posted at Fitzgerald's DoJ website refers to subpoenas issued regarding "conversations between [NYT reporter Judith] Miller and a specified government official occurring between on or about July 6, 2003 and on or about July 13, 2003, concerning Valerie Plame Wilson (whether referred to by name or by description) or concerning Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium." [emphasis added]

The implication is that Fitzgerald's inquiry is now looking all the way back to the claims about Saddam, uranium, and Niger that were touted in a pair of 2001 forged documents that turned up in Italy. This jibes with a little-noted story filed by veteran UPI editor Martin Walker on October 23. In what may be the first major leak in the case not disseminated by criminal defense lawyers, Walker cited "NATO intelligence sources" as saying, "Fitzgerald's team of investigators has sought and obtained documentation on the forgeries from the Italian government. Fitzgerald's team has been given the full, and as yet unpublished report of the Italian parliamentary inquiry into the affair.... This opens the door to what has always been the most serious implication of the CIA leak case, that the Bush administration could face a brutally damaging and public inquiry into the case for war against Iraq being false or artificially exaggerated."

All we know for sure now is that, as the dolorous Coulter saw too well, every outcome remains on the table. It's entirely possible that no more indictments in the case will be forthcoming--though unless the leaks last week about conferences between Fitzgerald and Rove attorney Robert Luskin were pure hooey, that seems doubtful. On the other hand, it is also possible that this investigation will dog Cheney from now until 2008 and raise him to the status of unindicted co-conspirator, or beyond. If that is where Fitzgerald means to go, there's every reason to suppose he'll find ample cooperation from the ranks of CIA and State Department officialdom whose advice was spurned or subverted en route to war. The list starts with former CIA director George Tenet, who was first pressured to disregard the word of his own analysts and then made to fall on his sword for having done so, and also includes Colin Powell and a host of folks most of us have never heard of. One of them, former Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, wrote a fairly breathtaking op-ed titled "The White House Cabal" in the L.A. Times on October 25. I've never read anything remotely like it from a former member of a sitting administration:

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