L'état, c'est George W.
LOS ANGELES - One week ago, a "senior administration official" told the Washington Post that, in the paper's words, "two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation" of the wife of Joseph Wilson. The wife, they revealed, worked for the CIA.
Wilson, a career diplomat from 1976 to 1998, was at that time (mid-July) one of the Bush administration's least-favourite Americans, because he had just accused it in the pages of The New York Times of "manipulat[ing] intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq." And Wilson was not your run-of-the-mill Bush critic -- he had, in fact, travelled to Niger in February, 2002, to investigate, on Vice-President Dick Cheney's behalf, whether the African country had sold uranium "yellowcake" to Iraq. He concluded the rumoured transaction never took place.
So it was with surprise that Wilson watched Bush assert an Africa-Iraq uranium connection in his January, 2003, State of the Union address, in what was to become an infamous 16-word passage. On July 6, the former ambassador finally went public with his story, warning against "the selective use of intelligence." On July 11, CIA director George Tenet made headlines worldwide by falling on his sword, saying, "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President." Five days later, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA "operative" in a syndicated column by conservative commentator Robert Novak, who quoted "two senior administration officials" as providing the information.
"Clearly," the Washington Post's administration source said last week, "it was meant purely and simply for revenge."
This is now the Beltway scandal du jour, with the Justice Department officially hunting down the leakers at the CIA's behest, and it's easy to get distracted by the he-said, she-said brouhaha.
But even the most generous possible interpretation of events -- minimizing Plame's covertness, maximizing Wilson's partisan motives and assuming the leakers acted alone -- still provides more evidence of the Bush administration's most alarming pathologies. These are people who all too frequently confuse themselves with the U.S. government, see their enormous power as a tempting means to an end, and treat their critics like enemies of the state.
Take Wilson. Though he served under Republicans and Democrats alike (and was singled out for praise for his work in Baghdad by George Bush, Sr.), and has donated money to both parties, the retired diplomat is being singled out for what the Republican national committee chairman has called his ties to "radical anti-Bush groups."
"The White House encouraged Republicans to portray [Wilson] ... as a partisan Democrat with an agenda and the Democratic Party as scandalmongering," The New York Times reported on Thursday. "It's slime and defend," a Republican aide told the Times.
In this wholly off-topic side-tracking effort -- what could Wilson's political beliefs possibly have to do with White House employees allegedly breaking federal law and compromising national security by vindictively outing a CIA agent? -- the administration has found embarrassingly willing executioners in the tough-on-terrorism press.
The National Review, a conservative magazine friendly enough with Bush that it just published a book of his speeches, has insisted for days that the "real story" is why an investigator as unqualified as >
For the last two years, the pro-war commentariat has taken Bush's "with us, or with the terrorists" line close to heart, allowing for the most intense personalization of U.S. foreign policy in my memory. In a remarkable Sept. 18 column, for example, The New York Times' Pulitzer-winning Thomas L. Friedman declared "France is becoming our enemy," based on the Gauls' galling Iraq policies.
I've seen the biggest free-trade supporters demand France and other foot-draggers be "punished" by being shut out of Iraq reconstruction projects (a policy that, by definition, increases costs to both Americans and Iraqis).
When your anti-American tuner is cranked up to maximum volume, it becomes difficult to separate important criticism from destructive sniping (a distinction further blurred by administration officials such as John Ashcroft, who famously told his critics: "Your tactics only aid terrorists -- for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends.") Why should I get excited by the Plame affair, some right-of-centre commentators want to know, when it's being blown out of proportion by the Bush-hating Left?
The answers should be familiar: Because organizations that can't process bad information won't learn, and will repeat their mistakes. Abuses of power that go unchecked will just lead to more. Intelligence-gathering warped by political considerations will lead to bad policy. And administrations that regularly invoke a high moral calling will only undermine their own arguments if petty amorality is tolerated.
President George W. Bush has known for more than two months that someone in his White House uncovered a CIA source during a week when his administration was overtly tarnishing the source's husband. Dealing with this rancid fact promptly, and seriously, will be an important sign that national security and public morality are more important than the petty politics of any given day.
Matt Welch is an Associate Editor at Reason magazine and lives in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com