The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Monday, July 18, 2005


If you haven't already, you really should read Frank Rich's sunday column, "Follow the Uranium". He warns us not to get too caught up in the supporting characters in the CIA leak case, noting not only where the buck stops but also where the scandal truly originates:
[W]e shouldn't get hung up on [Rove] - or on most of the other supposed leading figures in this scandal thus far. Not Matt Cooper or Judy Miller or the Wilsons or the bad guy everyone loves to hate, the former CNN star Robert Novak. This scandal is not about them in the end, any more than Watergate was about Dwight Chapin and Donald Segretti or Woodward and Bernstein. It is about the president of the United States. It is about a plot that was hatched at the top of the administration and in which everyone else, Mr. Rove included, are at most secondary players.

To see the main plot, you must sweep away the subplots, starting with the Cooper e-mail. It has been brandished as a smoking gun by Bush bashers and as exculpatory evidence by Bush backers (Mr. Rove, you see, was just trying to ensure that Time had its facts straight). But no one knows what this e-mail means unless it's set against the avalanche of other evidence, most of it secret, including what Mr. Rove said in three appearances before the grand jury. Therein lies the rub, or at least whatever case might be made for perjury.
If that sounds familiar to you, then you're right, but we'll get to that. What about Joe Wilson?
This case is not about Joseph Wilson. He is, in Alfred Hitchcock's parlance, a MacGuffin, which, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a particular event, object, factor, etc., initially presented as being of great significance to the story, but often having little actual importance for the plot as it develops." Mr. Wilson, his mission to Niger to check out Saddam's supposed attempts to secure uranium that might be used in nuclear weapons and even his wife's outing have as much to do with the real story here as Janet Leigh's theft of office cash has to do with the mayhem that ensues at the Bates Motel in "Psycho."
And the rub?
This case is about Iraq, not Niger. The real victims are the American people, not the Wilsons. The real culprit - the big enchilada, to borrow a 1973 John Ehrlichman phrase from the Nixon tapes - is not Mr. Rove but the gang that sent American sons and daughters to war on trumped-up grounds and in so doing diverted finite resources, human and otherwise, from fighting the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. That's why the stakes are so high: this scandal is about the unmasking of an ill-conceived war, not the unmasking of a C.I.A. operative who posed for Vanity Fair.


Once we were locked into the war, and no W.M.D.'s could be found, the original plot line was dropped with an alacrity that recalled the "Never mind!" with which Gilda Radner's Emily Litella used to end her misinformed Weekend Update commentaries on "Saturday Night Live." The administration began its dog-ate-my-homework cover-up, asserting that the various warning signs about the uranium claims were lost "in the bowels" of the bureaucracy or that it was all the C.I.A.'s fault or that it didn't matter anyway, because there were new, retroactive rationales to justify the war. But the administration knows how guilty it is. That's why it has so quickly trashed any insider who contradicts its story line about how we got to Iraq, starting with the former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill and the former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke.

Next to White House courtiers of their rank, Mr. Wilson is at most a Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. The brief against the administration's drumbeat for war would be just as damning if he'd never gone to Africa. But by overreacting in panic to his single Op-Ed piece of two years ago, the White House has opened a Pandora's box it can't slam shut. Seasoned audiences of presidential scandal know that there's only one certainty ahead: the timing of a Karl Rove resignation. As always in this genre, the knight takes the fall at exactly that moment when it's essential to protect the king.
(emphasis mine) The irony of the right's attacks on Joe Wilson is that when placed against the background of the CIA leak case in general, they may remind you of the Niger uranium claim as compared to the administration's total case for the existence of Iraqi WMD. Except that the Bush defenders have made contradictory arguments. In the case of Wilson, they trash him specifically with the intent of delegitimizing and undermining the investigation against the leakers, saying no crime was committed because . . . because Wilson is a poopoo-head. Yet when the "16 words" lie was brought to the public's attention, the choice defense of the administration by its apologists was that regardless of the uranium claim, it was part of an extensive, rich tapestry, just a thread in an ocean of evidence that Saddam had WMD.

What the the facts show is that these positions should be flip-flopped. What Joe Wilson says and does has precisely zero bearing on Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation. Whether or not he enjoys being on camera, whether of the video or Vanity Fair variety, makes no difference. What matters is that someone leaked the identity of a CIA operative. Wilson's July 6 opinion column could be lies from start to finish (it isn't) and it still wouldn't matter.

On the flip-side, the administration's response to the revelation that its claims about Saddam and uranium weren't true is very telling about their opinion of their own case for the existence of Iraqi WMD in general. There were the weeks of buck-passing (It was Tenet's fault! No, Rice! No Tenet! Hadley! Cambone! Oh my!), the tortured parsing of the statement to hide behind meaningless technical veracity, and of course, the hatchet-flyswat that was the revenge leaks against Joe Wilson and his wife. This grotesque display of defensiveness speaks not only to the absolute politicization of just about everything by this administration, but also to the fatal flimsiness of their WMD case on the whole. Exact massive retaliation against Joe Wilson, not only to punish him for speaking out, but also in the hope that others won't come forward and uncover the rest of their deceptions. Sy Hersh and Richard Clarke as the notable exceptions, this strategy worked; they generally kept people away from the truth long enough to change the rationale for the war about six times.

The problem is, this was an expedient short-term strategy that dooms them in the long run, one in which the chickens are hard-wired to come to roost eventually, in the form of impending criminal indictments.

I'm inclined to agree with Rich's assertions about Rove in the final paragraph of his piece... to a point. It may very well come to sacrificing Rove for the good of the administration, but he is a character in this saga who has no true parallel to any from Watergate. His work is more closely tied to Bush's political fate, and has been since the early 1990's, than any advisor was to Richard Nixon's. If he stays, he may be a visible liability electorally for Bush, but under the surface he is, and always has been key to Bush's success, as well as that of othe Republicans for a long time. Even if Texans knew him in 1986 like they do now, his dirty trick in that year's gubernatorial race (bugging his own office and blaming it on the Democratic incumbent governor) still would have worked. If Rove goes, it will be because Bush (and others) made a decision that public Rove is more harmful to him politically than private Rove is helpful.

What is really at stake here -- and it will become more clear as time goes by -- is not the mere legal fate of Karl Rove or Scooter Libby or any other Bush underling. It is about pulling back the curtain, and exposing the Mayberry Machiavellis for what they are and for what they've done. The politicization of everything. Compromising national security for the purpose of political revenge. And perhaps most damning of all, the administration's unseriousness about national security.

Consider: The unseriousness that allowed Bush, Rove & co. to out Valerie Plame, an operative working on WMD nonproliferation (exposing CIA front company Brewster-Jennings in the process) without a care for the national security implications is the same unseriousness they had about Iraq's supposed weapons. Remember, when they were looking for them, the motives of the administration and its allies amounted to wanting to be proved right; if they really believed the weapons existed, they would have shown a lot more concern that they had gone missing. There was no such concern from the Bushites, only a desire to zing the naysayers. For them, politics is the only seriousness.

This sort of attitude starts at the top; Rove may have a hand in this, but in the end it's laid at the feet of George W Bush. And now begins their collapse under the weight of their own folly. The polls are showing that people don't buy their guff anymore. The law may soon follow.


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