Lewis Libby’s lawyers are quietly filing appeals while President Bush privately ponders arguments for and against a pardon. But now is not the time for this controversy to fade away. Now is the time for it to begin in earnest. The compromise of America’s national security should not be swept under a rug.
The good news: There never was a conspiracy on the part of Libby or others in the White House to reveal the identity of a secret agent. Valerie Plame’s name was first leaked to columnist Robert Novak by Richard Armitage, a State Department official who was not seeking to harm Plame or her husband, Joseph Wilson. (This is obvious to anyone who knows anything about Armitage; had it been otherwise, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald would, without doubt, have brought charges against him.)
The bad news: The CIA actually did send Wilson -- a retired ambassador with no investigative skills and a blatant bias against the Bush administration – to conduct a highly sensitive investigation.
Key to that decision was Plame’s recommendation. Despite Wilson’s insistence that his wife played no role, a memo from Plame on behalf of Wilson was sent to the CIA's Directorate of Operations. That memo was retrieved and revealed by Senate investigators.
Among the national security questions this raises: Did CIA officials have no qualified agents they could assign? Or did they regard the inquiry into whether Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase uranium in Africa as not worthy of serious attention?
And were they oblivious to the conflict of interest? Since the CIA neglected to require that Wilson keep his C.I.A. mission confidential, they were giving him a credential he could use to sign up lucrative clients. Those clients would see him as an intelligence insider and their fees would enrich the Wilson/Plame household. Does the CIA make it a habit to give its employees such gifts?
We now know also that Wilson’s mission was botched. He returned from Africa certain there had been no attempt by Saddam to acquire uranium. Alarms were not set off for him by the fact that in February 1999, Saddam sent a “trade mission” to Niger, the country from which Iraq had first acquired uranium in 1981 (as confirmed in the Duelfer Report).
Thanks to the reporting of Christopher Hitchens , we know, too, that that this trade mission was led by Wissam al-Zahawie, Saddam’s top expert on nuclear matters. Did Wilson fail to uncover that fact? Or did he assume that al-Zahawie went to Niger for the waters?