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'Plame-gate' & Myth of the Renegade Aide

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One of the common myths of official Washington is that most political scandals result from overly aggressive aides operating out of control - the Watergate "third-rate burglary" or Iran-Contra's "men of zeal" - with top officials getting in trouble only later by trying to cover the mess up.

But the reality - which is relevant again amid the probe into the outing of a CIA officer - is that a principal official is almost always lurking somewhere in the background of the original crime, sending signals or pulling strings with the expectation that, if caught, a subordinate will take the fall.

So now, much like the historical arguments over whether the Watergate break-in was approved by Richard Nixon or which Iran-Contra dealings were green-lighted by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the new question is whether Dick Cheney and George W. Bush winked at their top aides leaking the identity of Valerie Plame as retaliation for her husband exposing a deception used to take America to war in Iraq.

The "Plame-gate" probe has focused on Vice President Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis Libby and President Bush's deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. Based on what's now publicly known, it appears that Libby and Rove at minimum misled investigators about how they learned of Plame's identity and how they disseminated that information.

Yet while special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald examines whether Libby and Rove committed crimes, official Washington has mostly averted its eyes from a potentially bigger question: Did their superiors, Cheney and/or Bush, encourage or order the leak?

If so, based on history, one of two outcomes would seem likely: either a constitutional crisis would result, with at least one of the top two U.S. executive officers implicated in a felony conspiracy, or a conveniently truncated investigation would follow, not getting much higher than Libby and Rove.

The past two major Republican scandals - Watergate and Iran-Contra - represent those two alternatives, the first leading to Nixon's resignation and the second to the protection of Reagan and George Bush Sr. Conceivably, "Plame-gate" could end in some middle ground if, say, Cheney were forced to resign but not George Bush Jr.

Cheney Implicated

Already, the emerging evidence has linked Cheney to the leak case. The New York Times reported that more than a month before Plame was outed in a July 14, 2003, column by Robert Novak, the vice president was told about Plame's identity by then-CIA Director George Tenet.

At the time, Cheney was angry that Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was challenging a chief rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

Wilson was telling reporters that he had been sent by the CIA to check out reports of Iraq trying to buy enriched uranium from Niger and had concluded that the claims were false. But the White House had used the Niger allegations anyway in making its terrifying case that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was on course to build a nuclear bomb.

Tenet divulged to the irascible Cheney that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson's fact-finding trip to Niger - information that Cheney then passed on to Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libby's notes as described by lawyers in the case, the New York Times reported.

"The notes do not show that Mr. Cheney knew the name of Mr. Wilson's wife," the Times wrote. "But they do show that Mr. Cheney did know and told Mr. Libby that Ms. Wilson was employed by the Central Intelligence Agency and that she may have helped arrange her husband's trip." [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]

Those two facts - Plame's work for the CIA and her role in Wilson's Niger trip - then became the centerpieces of the administration's behind-the-scenes campaign in June/July 2003 to disparage Wilson. Rove, Libby and possibly other administration officials told journalists that Wilson's wife had helped get him the Niger assignment.

For instance, on June 23, 2003 - 11 days after the Cheney-Libby conversation - Libby briefed New York Times reporter Judith Miller about Wilson and may then have passed on the tip that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Libby added more details in a second meeting with Miller on July 8, 2003, when he told Miller that Wilson's wife worked at a CIA unit responsible for weapons intelligence and non-proliferation, the Times reported.

It was in the context in those July 8 notes where Miller wrote down the words "Valerie Flame," an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson's maiden name, although Miller said she couldn't recall who gave her that name.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at

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