Hurricane Fitzgerald Approaches the White House

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

October 25, 2005

Before dragging any Bush administration officials off to jail, we should pause and take a long, deep breath.

In the 1990's, we saw the harm that special prosecutors can do: they become obsessive, pouncing on the picayune, distracting from governing and frustrating justice more than serving it. That was true particularly of Kenneth Starr's fanatical pursuit of Bill Clinton and of the even more appalling 10-year investigation into inconsequential lies by Henry Cisneros, the former housing secretary.

Special prosecutors always seem to morph into Inspector Javert, the Victor Hugo character whose vision of justice is both mindless and merciless. We don't know what evidence has been uncovered by Patrick Fitzgerald, but we should be uneasy that he is said to be mulling indictments that aren't based on his prime mandate, investigation of possible breaches of the 1982 law prohibiting officials from revealing the names of spies.

Instead, Mr. Fitzgerald is rumored to be considering mushier kinds of indictments, for perjury, obstruction of justice or revealing classified information. Sure, flat-out perjury must be punished. But if the evidence is more equivocal, then indictments would mark just the kind of overzealous breach of prosecutorial discretion that was a disgrace when Democrats were targeted.

And it would be just as disgraceful if Republicans are the targets.

There is, of course, plenty of evidence that White House officials behaved abominably in this affair. I'm offended by the idea of a government official secretly using the news media - under the guise of a "former Hill staffer" - to attack former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. That's sleazy and outrageous. But a crime?

I'm skeptical, even though there seems to have been a coordinated White House campaign against Mr. Wilson. One indication of that coordination is that, as I've reported earlier, I received a call at the same time, in June 2003, from yet another senior White House official, who chided me for two columns in which I discussed Mr. Wilson's trip to Niger but didn't use his name.

My caller never said anything inappropriate or mentioned Mr. or Mrs. Wilson. But the White House was clearly on the warpath - even before Mr. Wilson went public in his July 2003 Op-Ed article - to defend itself from his allegations and from the idea that the administration had cooked the Iraq intelligence.

My guess is that the participants in a White House senior staff meeting discussed Mr. Wilson's trip and the charges that the administration had knowingly broadcast false information about uranium in Niger - and then decided to take the offensive. The leak of Mrs. Wilson's identity resulted from that offensive, but it may well have been negligence rather than vengeance. I question whether the White House knew that she was a noc (nonofficial cover), and I wonder whether some official spread the word of Mrs. Wilson's work at the C.I.A. to make her husband's trip look like a nepotistic junket.

That was appalling. It meant that any person ever linked to Mrs. Wilson or to her front company was at grave risk. And we in journalism have extended too much professional courtesy to Robert Novak, who was absolutely wrong to print the disclosure.

But there's also no need to exaggerate it. The C.I.A. believed that Mrs. Wilson's identity had already been sold to the Russians by Aldrich Ames by 1994, and she had begun the process of switching to official cover as a State Department officer.

To me, the whisper campaign against Mr. Wilson amounts to back-stabbing politics, but not to obvious criminality. And if indictments are issued for White House officials on vague charges of revealing classified information, that will have a chilling effect on the reporting of national security issues. The ultimate irony would come if we ended up strengthening the Bush administration's ability to operate in secret.

One can believe that the neocons are utterly wrong without also assuming that they are evil. And one can yearn for Scooter Libby's exit from the White House - to be, say, ambassador to Nauru - without dreaming of him in chains.

So I find myself repulsed by the glee that some Democrats show at the possibility of Karl Rove and Mr. Libby being dragged off in handcuffs. It was wrong for prosecutors to cook up borderline and technical indictments during the Clinton administration, and it would be just as wrong today. Absent very clear evidence of law-breaking, the White House ideologues should be ousted by voters, not by prosecutors.