Scandal at the White House

By Jurek Martin

Financial Times

Published: October 23 2005

The chaos theory has a butterfly flapping its wings in China and a hurricane engulfing the other side of the world. It may be the only reasonable explanation for one of the most convoluted and potentially far-reaching sagas to consume the US.

It all began three summers ago with a retired diplomat writing an opinion article about a trip to an obscure country in Africa. It could end with a battered Bush White House deprived of the services of at least two of its leading brains. It has already claimed the reputation of the best newspaper in the land, the New York Times.

The cast of characters is more the stuff of fiction than fact, part Le Carré, part Flashman. It has never lent itself to an easy explanation, but even a partial understanding requires that one be attempted.

Joseph Wilson, the retired diplomat, wrote a New York Times column disputing President George W. Bush’s assertion that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger in his drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The US invaded Iraq ostensibly to root out WMDs, which have never been found.

Mr Wilson had reason to know, because somebody in the administration sent him to Niger to check out the yellowcake story. Robert Novak, the conservative pundit, then wrote a column claiming two senior, but unnamed, White House officials had told him the mission had been arranged by the diplomat’s wife, Valerie Plame, who worked at the CIA. The column, from someone as connected to this White House as Mr Novak, was widely seen as an official attempt to discredit Mr Wilson. But Ms Plame may have been at the time an undercover agent working on WMD issues. A 1982 law makes it a crime to disclose the identity of a covert operative. Under pressure, the justice department appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, a hard-nosed federal prosecutor in Chicago, to find out if laws had been broken and, if so, by whom.

Fingers of suspicion, initially raised by Mr Wilson, pointed at Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff and Bush political mastermind, and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, vice-president Dick Cheney’s influential right hand and a leading neo-conservative hawk. Mr Fitzgerald questioned both early in his investigations.

But the key to solving the case lay with the at least half a dozen journalists working on the story. All but two co-operated by answering Mr Fitzgerald’s questions, but Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Judy Miller of the New York Times refused, citing the principle of protecting the confidentiality of sources. Time controversially folded Mr Cooper’s tent this summer, but Ms Miller, who had never actually written anything about the Plame affair, spent 85 days in jail for contempt. She was released earlier this month after receiving a letter from her source, Mr Libby, absolving her of obligations to protect him. She then gave testimony twice.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an agonised account of Ms Miller’s involvement in the affair, including her own version, which left many questions unanswered, not least why an apparent earlier release from Mr Libby was not taken up. She also claimed to have a “security clearance” from the Pentagon, which raised many eyebrows inside and beyond ­ her newsroom.

The internal dismay on the newspaper is palpable, with its leadership, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr downwards, looking weak. The executive editor, Bill Keller, actually removed Ms Miller from the national security beat, but she simply went back to it regardless.

This is the third embarrassing mea culpa from the Times in two years – following the Jayson Blair case (the young reporter who made things up) and the reappraisal last year of its own WMD stories, most written or co-authored by Ms Miller, an ardent believer in their existence (her prime source was Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi politician once favoured by the Pentagon). Mr Libby’s letter reads like one from one true believer to another, not from a senior government official to a reporter.

The Fitzgerald investigation appears nearly complete. He has run a tight ship, unlike the special prosecutors who probed Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. He could bring charges for perjury or under other federal statutes, including the Espionage Act, or he could indict nobody (the 1982 CIA law carries an extremely high burden of proof).

It would be bad enough for Mr Bush to lose the services of Mr Rove or Mr Libby, but worse still if the buck did not stop with them but extended to Mr Cheney, the guiding force behind so much the administration does.

The fact that they have been distracted has contributed to these worst of times for the president, as reflected in sagging poll ratings. Asleep at the wheel when Hurricane Katrina struck, bogged down in Iraq, now pilloried by his own conservative base for nominating the obscure Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, even his public performances, once so carefully orchestrated by Mr Rove, have become more erratic.

Watergate and Monicagate showed the cover-ups were worse than the crimes, which may prove true here. Whatever the outcome, now as then, chaos reigns.

The writer, a former FT US editor, writes the Letter to America column