As the days dwindle down to a precious few for the grand jury investigating who leaked Valerie Plame's undercover CIA status to journalists in mid-2003, most news stories about the controversy feel like filler and speculation right now: Who will Fitzgerald charge, and with what? How will Democratic and Republican leaders spin whatever Fitzgerald decides? What kind of a guy is the special prosecutor, anyway: crime fighter or nitpicker? And what if he brings no charges at all?
But two news items Tuesday managed to stand out from what President Bush last week called "the chatter." (Funny how he used the term associated with intercepted information from al-Qaida, subtly linking terrorists and journalists. "Subliminable"? You decide.) One was the amazing New York Times report that lawyers close to Fitzgerald say the prosecutor has notes showing that I. Lewis Libby learned Plame's identity from his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, not from journalists, as Libby apparently claimed. The other is the sad but predictable fact that the 2,000th American soldier died in Iraq today. If you miss those two pieces of news while playing Fitzgerald guessing games, you'll miss the bigger point of Plamegate.
Even in the unlikely event that Fitzgerald doesn't bring charges, we already know enough to conclude that something was seriously corrupt in the White House in the days before and after the Iraq war. Clearly the leak of her name harmed Plame, as well as her husband, Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who traveled to Niger to investigate reports that Saddam was seeking uranium for nuclear weapons, and who revealed in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that "it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place." But the much greater harm was to the nation. The mind shrinks from taking in the outlines of the truth, but every day it becomes clearer that a cabal of White House insiders sold a disastrous war based on faulty intelligence that they invented or suborned, and that they engaged in a highly organized and vicious campaign to smear, discredit and sideline those who dared to raise questions about it all. The Fitzgerald investigation just examines some of the laws they may have broken to do it.
It has always been clear that Cheney was at the center of the story, but the Times revelation Tuesday about his role in the campaign against Wilson reveals the strange mixture of pettiness, fear and arrogance that prevailed in the White House as its lovely little war, and the rationale for it, came crashing down. It's easy to say now that the White House overreacted to Wilson; it's unlikely he'd have gained the stature he has if the White House hadn't become obsessed with his Niger trip. Certainly his July New York Times Op-Ed piece boldly and directly challenged the underpinnings of the war, but we now know the White House was absorbed with discrediting Wilson even before that. The Los Angeles Times reported how Libby was personally driven to distraction by Wilson, monitoring his every utterance and urging a crusade to counter him.
But Libby clearly wasn't acting alone. We know Rove was talking to journalists about the former ambassador, and now we know Cheney was the first to tell his loyal chief of staff about Plame. There's always been something icky about the way the administration smeared Wilson: by implying he was an out-of-work nobody whose wife got him a gig for which he wasn't qualified. Among the macho boys and girls peddling the war, that must have seemed like quite the insult. (Somehow it brings to mind Cheney and Bush's priceless moment on the campaign trail, slurring the New York Times' Adam Clymer just loud enough that their faux-manly exchange could be heard: When Bush calls Clymer a "major league asshole," his veep just grunts, "Big time!")
But the smearing of Wilson wasn't just an escapade on the campaign trail, or in a gossipy, dysfunctional workplace; this was the White House, and Scooter Libby may now face charges for obscuring his boss's role in the effort to discredit Wilson. Whatever laws were broken, though, the obsession with Wilson suggests a dysfunctional workplace indeed, a White House out of control, so obsessed with punishing political enemies that it ignored the nation's real enemies -- all that time spent discrediting a former ambassador, exactly when the Iraq insurgency was building strength and the real nature of the war was becoming clear, notwithstanding Bush's silly "Mission Accomplished" photo op (just days before Wilson talked to the Times' Nicholas Kristof, off the record, about his Niger trip).
There are still so many unanswered questions: According to the Times, Fitzgerald's notes say CIA Director George Tenet gave Cheney Plame's name, but a "former" high-ranking intelligence officer denies it. Meanwhile, there are tantalizing hints that Fitzgerald has taken his inquiry beyond the limits of who leaked Plame's name -- UPI reported that he's looking into the forged Niger documents, and many news outlets say he's been examining the workings of the White House Iraq Group, the high-level team of Bush insiders that came together to, in Chief of Staff Andy Card's words, sell the "product" of war with Iraq with at best questionable, at worst forged, intelligence. There are also reports that Fitzgerald is investigating whether the actual target of the Cheney-Libby smear wasn't Wilson or Plame, but the CIA front group Plame worked for, Brewster-Jennings, which posed as an energy consulting firm but was engaged in weapons nonproliferation work.
Ah, but we're back in the dark but irresistible realm of speculation, and why bother when we'll have answers soon. For now it's best to stick to the facts. Cheney was in charge of the crusade to sell the Iraq war with faulty and forged intelligence, and he was central to, if not the head of, the effort to smear Joe Wilson. And 2,000 Americans have died as a result of his work.
In many ways the Fitzgerald investigation is a sideshow; we have plenty of evidence showing what happened. The secret Office of Special Plans, the "stovepiped" intelligence, the Pentagon's war against State and the CIA -- it has all been reported, and new evidence and accusations keep coming in. Just in the last week, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, blamed the war on "a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense ... that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made." In the Oct. 31 issue of the New Yorker, Brent Scowcroft, who was national security advisor under Bush I, blasted the neocons who dreamed up the Iraq war, and uttered this amazing statement: "I consider Cheney a good friend -- I've known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."
Whatever Fitzgerald decides, it's high time -- past time -- for Congress to begin asking deeper questions about how this war was sold to the American people. The 2,000 Americans who have given their lives deserve nothing less.