by Robert Herold
President George Bush and his White House staff seem to have adopted the tried, if not true, political strategy that calls for never coming clean when there remains any chance that a coverup might work. Apparently they haven't learned the lesson Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon taught, that the coverup is often worse than the initial transgression.

Referring to the Valerie Plame leaker investigation, our President blithely announced to the press that "we may never find out who did this." America hasn't heard a line like this coming from its president since Nixon dismissed Watergate as a "third-rate burglary."

Alas, the White House, along with its allies on the Hill and in the media, has done exactly what we could expect them to do if they had something to hide. They have sought to kill the messenger and, now, diminish the messenger's wife. Consider Mark Steyn's recent American Spectator article. He writes that whistleblower Joe Wilson "comes over like a total flake -- not a sober striped-pants diplomat but a shaggy-maned ideologically driven kook whose hippie-lyric quotes make a lot more sense than his neocon-bashing diatribes for lefty dronefests like The Nation."

Steyn snidely ridicules Wilson's investigation into Iraq's alleged efforts to obtain uranium from Niger. How could anyone presume to know anything after "eight days drinking mint tea and meeting with dozens of people"?

Hold it right there. Roll back the tape.

Steyn, you might say, "borrowed" from a July 11 article written by a partisan compatriot, Clifford May, who, writing for the conservative National Review. used exactly this same quote, the green tea line, and for the same purpose, to discredit Wilson. Apparently Steyn hasn't heard the news: Since May wrote his piece, the entire world has learned that Wilson was right. Steyn uses the Wilson affair to take a pseudo-clever swipe at the CIA: How could a competent agency, he seems to ask, ever send a guy like Wilson to investigate anything of importance?

More revealing is what first May and now Steyn leave out. Neither make mention of Wilson's dramatic and undisputed role in the run-up to the first Gulf War, which, of course, is the real reason the White House picked him to go to Africa. As many who found themselves held hostage by Saddam are now saying, Joe Wilson saved their lives, as he seized on his moment in history to save the day by getting them all out alive.

A flaky, partisan ideologue? The Bush Sr. White House found in a hero in Joe Wilson. So did Robert Novak, who, back in 1991, called him just that. And you know what? I'd bet that even back then, Wilson was learning a lot by drinking green tea with the locals.

Now about Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife: Novak, no doubt wanting to make a splash, wrote in his August column that she was "an operative." Later, under fire, he downgraded her to "desk officer." Now some of his ideological cronies are saying that she was nothing more than "a glorified secretary."

Here is what we know: Plame, 40 and the mother of three-year-old twins, was born in Anchorage, the daughter of an Air Force officer. She was raised in Philadelphia. She graduated from Penn State and later earned two master's degrees, one from the London School of Economics and one from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. She was only 22 when she joined the CIA. She underwent training at "The Farm," as the facility near Williamsburg, Va., is known to its graduates. She learned how to survive being taken hostage. She mastered the technique of reducing messages to microdots. She qualified with the AK-47. She learned to blow up cars and drive under fire -- as Washington Post writers Richard Leiby and Dana Priest wrote, "to see if she could handle the rigors of being an undercover case officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations."

Desk officer? Glorified secretary? The woman is really Jane Bond, which makes the tawdry partisan strategy of choice to diminish her all the more outrageous.

To better understand why the CIA is so angry, consider what little we know about Plame's years out in the cold. Leiby and Priest reveal that the French-speaking Plame "learned how to recruit foreign nationals to serve as spies, and how to hunt others and evade those who would hunt her -- some who might look as harmless as she herself does now as a mom with a model's poise and shoulder-length blond hair." She was regarded to be "the creme de la creme of spies: an 'NOC,' an officer with "nonofficial cover.'" Most of her friends thought she was "an energy consultant." Now it's been revealed that outing her has led to the end of a front corporation - and who knows haw damaging that was to national security?

So what about those six journalists who know the truth but say they must protect their sources? Some distinctions are in order. If a Bob Woodward approaches a source and asks for help, that source must be protected. If a leaker calls in on condition of confidentiality, however, the reporter is faced with establishing limits. But if, as I suspect was the case here, a vengeful leaker calls in and blurts out, "And did you know about Wilson's wife?" Well, that leaker should be, as Karl Rove is reputed to have said about Wilson's wife, fair game.

Bob Novak, Chris Mathews, Andrea Mitchell and the other three journalists contacted by the leakers should answer the question, to paraphrase Howard Baker's famous line from the Watergate hearings: Who in the administration leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, and who approved it?

Publication date: 10/16/03

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