All the president's men redux

Dec. 6, 2005, midnight | By Eve Gleichman, Alex Hyder | 18 years, 2 months ago

An idiot's guide to the Plame scandal

By now, you've probably heard something on the 6 o'clock news about a scandalous mess going on just across the Beltway. You've most likely read about it in your Washington Post, heard about it over the radio on your way to school and perhaps even talked about it in class. There has been a lot of clamor and hubbub about a case regarding New York Times journalists, investigations in Africa, uranium, undercover CIA agents and more finger-pointing than a Three Stooges film.

These are pieces to a big puzzle, one that has come together after many long, drawn-out years of investigation, blame, debate and denial. We've made it our job to go back to the beginning, and take you through this complicated maelstrom of people, places and events so that you too can be on top of this important piece of national news.

What Happened?

Back in 2003, George W. Bush and his administration were making the case to invade Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Bush and his cabinet insisted that the Iraqi dictator was developing weapons of mass destruction, and, based on the evidence available to them, many members of Congress from both parties seemed to agree. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush offered some of his evidence, including a claim that Hussein had attempted to buy uranium from Africa. Several months later, in July, 2003, a New York Times op-ed pointed out that these claims lacked evidence to back them.

Eight days later, Robert Novak, writing in a Washington Post column, revealed the name of an undercover CIA agent: Valerie Plame. Suddenly, Plame was undercover no longer — her name was in newspapers across the country. Her safety was compromised; she would no longer be able to serve as an undercover agent, and many of her former contacts could also find themselves in danger.

Okay, so what's the connection? Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, was the one who wrote the New York Times piece that pointed out that the uranium claims were bogus. Many in Washington suspect that Plame's name was leaked deliberately, as the administration's way of getting back at Wilson for his column.

Who's who in the scandal:

Valerie Plame
Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA operative who specialized in weapons of mass destruction. Her cover was blown by New York Times columnist Robert Novak after her husband Joseph Wilson, returned from the African nation of Niger, criticizing the Bush administration for misleading the public to believe that Niger was selling uranium resources to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to use in potential weapons of mass destruction. After her exposure as a CIA operative, she has been relegated to a desk job in the CIA's Langley, Virginia headquarters.

Joseph Wilson
Joseph Wilson, former White House ambassador to Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, and Plame's husband, traveled to Niger to investigate possible outlets of the yellowcake uranium which was rumored to have contributed to potential weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When Wilson found that the evidence of such a trade was in fact fabricated, he returned to the states and reported on his findings in a New York Times column, accusing the Bush administration of waging war under false pretenses. Shortly after this publication, Novak received word of a leak from the White House confirming Plame's involvement in the CIA. He reported this information in his column, blowing Plame's cover and putting an end to her days as an undercover agent. Wilson asserted that this was a threatening move from White House officials sparked by the accusations that he made in his column.

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby
Wait a minute! Libby? Wasn't he the guy involved in Watergate? No, that was G. Gordon Liddy. The similarities between the two, however, extend well beyond their names. Liddy was indicted, convicted and sentenced in connection with a major Washington scandal — Watergate — and as things stand, Libby is at risk of following in Liddy's footsteps… all the way to prison.

Libby, Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff, was indicted on October 28, under charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. He was the first to affirm that NBC correspondent Tim Russet tipped him off about Plame's involvement in the CIA, stating that he was at the end of a long chain of phone calls regarding her work. Later, a New York Times article published a statement with documented evidence that Libby was in fact at the beginning of this chain and guilty of beginning the leak.

Karl Rove
President Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove is under investigation for any possible obstructions of justice regarding the Plame affair. Though he has not yet been indicted, this top official is skating on thin ice as several contradictions have surfaced in his account of his role in the situation. He has been accused of mentioning Plame to a reporter from Time magazine. Rove, who played a large role in helping the Bush administration pitch the invasion of Iraq to the public, initially claimed that it was in a July 9, 2003 discussion that Novak first mentioned Plame to him. In recent testimony however, Rove cited Libby as his original source regarding Plame.

Dick Cheney
Though he has yet to be indicted, some suspect Cheney's involvement in the Plame scandal because of his prolonged and close association with Libby, his aide, and other key figures.

Judith Miller
A senior reporter for the New York Times at the time Plame's name was leaked, Miller, now retired, reportedly found out about Plame's CIA status after talking with an administration official. A federal judge found Miller in contempt of court after she refused to identify her source before a grand jury, sentencing her to a prison term in July, 2005. Miller, citing journalistic principles, refused to identify her source while in prison. She spent 85 days in an Alexandria, Virginia jail before being released on September 29.

Bob Woodward
This past November, journalist Bob Woodward gave a two hour deposition concerning the Plame Affair. According to his statement, a White House official notified Woodward about Plame's secret identity in 2000, much before Libby found out. He made an apology to the Washington Post for his conscious concealment of information about the major federal scandal, and may be Libby's best chance of avoiding a conviction.

So What?

The entire affair has had disastrous consequences on Plame herself. The scandal has also rocked the Bush administration, bringing it into what some commentators have called its "darkest hour." Public trust in the administration has dropped precipitously, with the most recent approval numbers showing the President's approval rating at a mere 37 percent. In comparison, his approval rating was at 60 percent at the time Plame's name was leaked. Although the Plame affair is by no means the only factor behind this dramatic reversal, the indictment and suspicion of key administration officials has tarnished Bush's image in the nation's psyche.

What's more, Miller's refusal to reveal her source and subsequent sentencing has rekindled debate about freedoms of the press in matters of national security. Some contend that the role of the press in a democratic society should protect journalists from having to reveal their sources, even to federal investigators. Without the ability to protect their sources with anonymity, they contend, reporters would find it difficult to gain their trust and confidence, and many potential sources with important or controversial information — information that could lead to scandals like Watergate or the Plame affair — would refuse to speak for fear of being exposed.

On the other hand, some in Washington say that journalists should be required to reveal anonymous sources in matters of national security. They say that the security of an entire nation takes precedence over the security of a single individual, and that "leaks" can sometimes be so dangerous that they need to be found and stopped.

Regardless of the way the Plame affair ends, it will surely have lasting effects on the Bush administration and on the press. The affair has the potential to change the American political landscape.

Eve Gleichman. Eve Gleichman didn't do it. More »

Alex Hyder. Hyder, as he is affectionately (or, as is often the case, not-so affectionately) known, is thoroughly enthused about his position on SCO. A junior in Blair's Magnet Program, he is too lazy to write a more extensive bio but nonetheless finds the energy to write … More »

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