Not so long ago, there was a furious fight among different tribes in the White House, CIA and State and Defense departments over the correct war-fighting strategy. The coin of the realm back then was intelligence. Intelligence that pointed in the right policy direction was cherry-picked and shown to the public; covert players connected to undesirable conclusions were outed or disparaged. This fight for the hearts and minds of Washington opinion shapers was fought out on the battlefields of The Washington Post and The New York Times -- and from them to the networks and news outlets across the country and around the world.
These descriptions may remind you of Valerie Plame -- a CIA operations officer with relatively minor responsibilities who was outed by someone in the George W. Bush administration. As soon as the press corps came to believe that someone -- perhaps close to the president -- had leaked her name to Bob Novak, the hunt was on. The media screamed for investigations. The CIA called for a Justice Department investigation. The opposition Democrats called for a special prosecutor to probe the unconscionable breach. The prosecutor was appointed by Bush. A trial was held.
People were less concerned with what they substantively had learned about Iraq's yellowcake uranium policy -- that the past decision to go to war in Iraq may have been made against the advice and proffered ambiguous evidence of Plame's husband -- than with the identity of the government official who despicably and feloniously had "blown her cover."
Well, last week, The New York Times again published on the front page the name of an alleged CIA-paid undercover asset. This time, it was none other than Ahmed Wali Karzai, the powerful brother of the Afghan president. The Times cited, on background, Obama administration "political officials," "senior administration officials" and others as its sources to the effect that Karzai has been secretly on the CIA payroll for eight years and has been helping the United States with intelligence, logistic and base support for our special forces, and recruiting and running an Afghan paramilitary force on the instruction of the CIA -- as well as being a major narcotics trafficker.
This may well be the most egregious compromise of an extraordinarily valuable and inflammatory secret CIA operative in our history. It was leaked not after the policy was carried out -- as in the Plame case -- but just weeks before the president will be making his fateful strategy and manpower decision for the Afghan war. It is also just days before the runoff election in Afghanistan, which may well be affected by the release of this shocking information.
The Times' reporters on this story are the estimable James Risen, Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti. They were doubtlessly the target of an intentional leak, but their top-rate professional reputations can assure us that they have been scrupulously accurate in describing their sources as Obama administration "political officials" and "senior administration officials," among others. Those characterizations can mean nothing less than high sub-Cabinet or Cabinet officials and/or White House deputy assistants or assistants to the president. On a stretch, the political officials might be special assistants to the president.
In all such categories, their investigation and prosecution (it is a very serious felony for an official with the authority to possess such information to reveal it) would need to be carried out by a special prosecutor, as the attorney general would be judged to have a conflict of interest to prosecute someone appointed by the president and so close to him.
At such a moment, two questions promptly and almost invariably arise across the media, across Washington and across the country: Who did it and why? The search starts with the answer to this age-old question: (SET ITAL) Cui bono (END ITAL)? (Who benefits?) No one knows yet. I certainly do not. But people are speculating. Was it done to shape presidential policy not yet made or to justify a policy already made but not yet announced?
Is it the group in the White House around the vice president that does not want to have our country ally with a corrupt Afghan government (and thus wants to reduce, not increase, troop levels)?
Is it the political operatives in the White House who desperately do not want the president to get bogged down in "his" Vietnam and who are allied with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who herself is in open war against the CIA, calling them criminal liars to Congress)?
Is it a senior diplomat with personal grievances?
Is it the group in the White House closely allied with the Defense Department, which -- for deep institutional reasons that transcend policy, partisan politics and administrations -- is often on the lookout to give the CIA a black eye?
Is it some political player at the White House acting in the interest of some other faction at the CIA, which many knowledgeable people believe has been supporting all sides in Afghanistan -- Taliban, narco-traffickers, warlords, other mujahedeen, different wings of the Karzai government, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, Iran, India and Russia?
The CIA should order its inspector general to investigate. There should be a Justice Department leak probe. A special prosecutor must be appointed. Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, should raise holy hell. And he knows how to do it.
Of course, you have not heard anyone asking these questions ... yet, because in today's Washington, there is a curious lack of curiosity regarding possible wrongdoing by the administration's staff.
But you will hear these questions -- and more. Because there are some powerful cliques in this town with powerful interests in seeing justice done in this "intelligence betrayal of the century." Ticktock ... ticktock. The squirming already has begun.