The beltway inquisition

Posted: Sep 30, 2004 12:00 AM

 If the special prosecutor's probe into the identity of Bush administration officials who leaked the name of a CIA agent isn't a witch hunt, it certainly qualifies as a colossal waste of money. And it's likely to erode the ability of journalists to report information gleaned from whistle-blowers.

 This saga began on July 6, 2003, when former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson wrote a piece for The New York Times in which he revealed he was the former envoy who had gone to Niger for the CIA to investigate a report that Iraq had purchased uranium from that African nation. Wilson wrote that he had concluded the exchange was "highly doubtful" -- thus discrediting 16 words in President Bush's State of the Union address. Columnist Robert D. Novak then wrote a column that revealed Wilson had gone to Niger on the advice of Wilson's CIA-operative wife, Valerie Plame.

 Howls of outrage from the left echoed. It was a felony to leak Plame's name, Bush haters panted. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on the FBI to probe the matter, as the Nation's Washington editor David Corn asked, "So where is the investigation?"

 Wilson wrote this year that his wife "had nothing to do" with the Niger assignment. But a July Senate Intelligence Committee report later found that she "offered up" Wilson for the Niger trip. More important, the Senate panel found that Wilson did not debunk the Iraq-Niger uranium connection in debriefing on his return from Niger. The panel called into question Wilson's claim that he had noticed that certain documents were forged -- when he had not seen them -- and noted that his debriefing supported suspicions about an Iraq-Niger deal.

 Thus, after Wilson and his wife posed for photos in Vanity Fair (odd behavior for a couple outraged that Plame's cover had been blown), and after Wilson wrote a book on the subject, "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity," the diplomat looked as discredited as he tried to make Bush look. (He also reinforced my personal rule to not trust any person or organization that claims possession of "truth.")

 The calls for an investigation led to one. First, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself. Then, he assigned Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, as a special prosecutor.

 A year later, the investigation lives. Novak won't say if he has been subpoenaed or has testified before a grand jury, but The New York Times reported that four reporters -- none of whom broke the Plame story -- were subpoenaed and testified before the grand jury. Since Fitzgerald compelled federal employees to sign agreements waiving any confidentiality agreements with journalists, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan has argued that reporters must testify. That's bad news for whistle-blowers.

 When attorneys for New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who had talked to confidential sources, protested, Hogan wrote, "Although Ms. Miller never wrote an article about Ambassador Joseph Wilson or his wife Valerie Plame, she contemplated writing one."

 Think about that.

 The worst of it is, it is not clear a crime has been committed. Former federal prosecutor Victoria Toensing said this: "I don't think they have a crime." Federal law requires that the CIA take "affirmative measures" to hide Plame's identity, or there was no crime. There is reason to believe the CIA did not protect her identity or that the leakers did not know Plame's status, another element necessary for a conviction.

 In the meantime, innocent reporters have been thrown before a grand jury, pressured to air confidential information. While lefties who hate Bush may enjoy the prospect, the net result easily could be a drought on leaks that damage Bush as well. Again, the left is too clever for its own good.

 As happens, Fitzgerald's office wouldn't say how much the investigation has cost or why it cares to subpoena reporters who didn't out Plame. So I will leave it to you, dear reader, to try to imagine how much money and energy has been spent on this inquisition when these resources could go toward investigating terrorists, organized crime or white-collar criminals.

 An apology. A reader pointed out my error in calling France and Germany "gun-shy" in my Sept. 28 column, "With friends like this ... " after both nations sent troops to Afghanistan. While I take strong issue with France, especially for undermining U.S. efforts to win a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against a non-compliant Saddam Hussein -- the passage of which might have changed history -- I was guilty of doing what I accused Kerry of doing -- that is, not appreciating U.S. allies' contributions. I take it back.