Those who despise George Bush see him as the Second Coming of Richard Nixon, and they wish for nothing more fervently than a Second Going: a Watergate-magnitude scandal that will drive him from office. Their last best hope is Patrick Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, appointed two years ago to investigate the CIA’s complaint that Valerie Plame’s CIA employ had been leaked to columnist Robert Novak, seemed destined to disappoint them. A month ago, even a week ago, it was possible without delusion to believe that Fitzgerald’s investigation would end without indictments. But no longer. Thanks to a stream of leaks that have grown to flood stage, it’s very likely that Fitzgerald will, this week, indict senior members of the Bush White House staff including, in all probability, Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff. Both Rove and Libby were advised last week that they may “…be in serious legal jeopardy,” according to one of the leaks. And they may not be the only White House and CIA employees Fitzgerald may indict. President Bush has had political good times and bad. If these indictments are issued, this will be the worst. Coming at a time of White House political weakness, if the MSM can make its fondest dream come true, Fitzgerald’s actions could grow to be as serious politically as Watergate, from as little a seed.
The Plame Name Blame Game is not, from all we know, based on a criminal act. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, the source of Novak’s column (or the other divulging acts, to those such as the NYT’s Judith Miller) would have had to divulge Plame’s covert identity intentionally at a time the CIA was taking active measures to conceal it. Neither condition appears to be satisfied, nor does it appear that other crimes such as espionage were committed (unless it can be proven that Karl Rove is a secret agent of Jacques Chirac). But Fitzgerald is apparently focusing his investigation on matters well beyond the act originally complained of, and even beyond the usual allegations of coverup and conspiracy.
The investigation began with the fact that when Joe Wilson, Plame’s husband, was saying the rationale for the Iraq war was a lie, Rove and Libby were committing acts of politics in the White House. The two spoke to a number of reporters about Wilson’s misrepresentations about his “mission” to Niger and its negligible results. Plame’s employment at the CIA may have been discussed though not apparently divulged by Rove or Libby. Rove, having appeared before the grand jury four times and Libby, who has also testified, may be charged with obstruction of justice or perjury based on their recollection of the conversations between themselves and with reporters at the time and since the Fitzgerald inquiry began. Those are the usual “gotcha” crimes a special counsel charges under the oldest of political rules: it isn’t what you do in Washington that’s important, but what you do after you get caught. If that were the only basis for “Plamegate,” the president — if not his staff — could rest easy. There will be no 18-minute gaps in Bush White House recordings.
Fitzgerald, according to several stories — especially Judith Miller’s account of her grand jury testimony — seems to be going beyond the usual coverup investigation and into how classified information was handled in the Vice President’s office. According to Miller’s account of her grand jury testimony, Fitzgerald asked her repeatedly whether Libby had shared classified information with her. A Washington Post account, based on leaks from a “person familiar with Rove’s testimony” — as well as leaks apparently by either Fitzgerald’s staff or Fitzgerald himself — said, “One person in the probe said Fitzgerald showed considerable early interest in the White House Iraq Group, a task force created by Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. in August 2002 and charged with ‘marketing’ the war in Iraq to the public.”
This is the most troubling aspect of the Fitzgerald investigation. The WHIG — which included Condoleezza Rice, Rove, Libby and others — was a strategy group coordinating the administration’s political efforts on Iraq, beginning at the time we were about to take the case against Iraq to the UN. It was neither unusual nor some Machiavellian cabal charged with duping the public into backing a false war (though that is precisely what you will hear it was in the coming days).
Looking at the conduct of Rove and Libby, whether they leaked classified information in violation of law and whether they could have perjured themselves or even conspired to do so is all within the usual — and fair — purview of a special counsel. Fitzgerald is described as apolitical, a straight shooter who is highly respected by his peers. But if he chooses to charge people for their political activities — and the WHIG was nothing more — he can for all intents criminalize politics.
Which is precisely that which the media is salivating over in anticipation. The usual suspects are already thinking Watergate Redux. Appropriately for a CBS reporter, Lesley Stahl appeared on the Comedy Central channel and said that the Valerie Plame case “could possibly take off the way Watergate did.” Howard Fineman of Newsweek wrote, on October 19, that it would be “poetic justice” if the Bush administration, which “rose to power on the strength of a disciplined, aggressive, leak-proof spin machine,” were brought down by the Fitzgerald investigation. Fineman, eagerly anticipating Fitzgerald’s actions, wrote, “You don’t have to reach far back to find examples. Richard Nixon’s rise was made possible by his calculating, outsider’s mind. He knew how to use fear in the service of power because he was so full of fear himself. But this perfect instrument for cold war and diplomatic realpolitik metastasized into Oval Office paranoia, CREEP, and Watergate.”
Fitzgerald, not shielded by the expired Independent Counsel statute, cannot issue a report based on grand jury information. If he were to release a report — which can only be based on what he found in the grand jury proceedings — he would be breaking the law. He must either issue indictments or go quietly. And a special prosecutor who opens a new website, as Fitzgerald did last Friday, isn’t planning on going quietly. If Fitzgerald chooses to cross the bright line between politics and criminal behavior, he can try to criminalize the WHIG’s activities and damage not just this president but all who come after.
President Bush — with the Fitzgerald investigation coming to a close, with the Miers nomination in real trouble, and everything else on his plate, including the UN, Syria, and the war in Iraq — vowed to not be distracted by the “background noise” and “chatter” surrounding his political woes. He can fulfill this promise only if he takes decisive action to replace any part of his team that is knocked out by indictments.
If Rove or Libby or others are indicted, they will have to leave the administration at least until the end of the criminal trials. In that time, the president can be weakened by their departure and the press feeding frenzy that is sure to accelerate daily, or he can replace them with equally strong people who can get his presidency back on track. Karen Hughes, wasted as the ambassador at large to the Muslim world, can be brought back in a top position. C. Boyden Gray (whose ambassadorship is held up by a frivolous Senate “hold” on his nomination) could be brought in as White House chief of staff to replace the tired Andy Card. And others, loyal to Mr. Bush and his agenda, frustrated by the stagnation and ineptness of the White House, can come in to restore the authority and leadership role the Bush administration must have if it is to do anything in the next three years. In chaos there is opportunity. It will be Mr. Bush’s choice to remain under fire or take charge again and move out.p> strong>TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum