Sunday, July 17, 2005

Where's the Newt?

By JOHN TIERNEY
Published: July 16, 2005
We are in the midst of a remarkable Washington scandal, and we still don't have a name for it. Leakgate, Rovegate, Wilsongate - none of the suggestions have stuck because none capture what's so special about the current frenzy to lock up reporters and public officials.

The closest parallel is the moment in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" when members of a mob eager to burn a witch are asked by the wise Sir Bedevere how they know she's a witch.

"Well, she turned me into a newt," the villager played by John Cleese says.

"A newt?" Sir Bedevere asks, looking puzzled.

"I got better," he explains.

"Burn her anyway!" another villager shouts.

That's what has happened since this scandal began so promisingly two summers ago. At first it looked like an outrageous crime harming innocent victims: a brave whistle-blower was smeared by a vicious White House politico who committed a felony by exposing the whistle-blower's wife as an undercover officer, endangering her and her contacts in the field.

But if you consider the facts today, you may feel like Sir Bedevere. Where's the newt? What did the witch actually do? Consider that original list of outrages:

The White House felon So far Karl Rove appears guilty of telling reporters something he had heard, that Valerie Wilson, the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, worked for the C.I.A. But because of several exceptions in the 1982 law forbidding disclosure of a covert operative's identity, virtually no one thinks anymore that he violated it. The law doesn't seem to apply to Ms. Wilson because she apparently hadn't been posted abroad during the five previous years.

The endangered spies Ms. Wilson was compared to James Bond in the early days of the scandal, but it turns out she had been working for years at C.I.A. headquarters, not exactly a deep-cover position. Since being outed, she's hardly been acting like a spy who's worried that her former contacts are in danger.

At the time her name was printed, her face was still not that familiar even to most Washington veterans, but that soon changed. When her husband received a "truth-telling" award at a Nation magazine luncheon, he wept as he told of his sorrow at his wife's loss of anonymity. Then he introduced her to the crowd.

And then, for any enemy agents who missed seeing her face at the luncheon but had an Internet connection, she posed with her husband for a photograph in Vanity Fair.

The smeared whistle-blower Mr. Wilson accused the White House of willfully ignoring his report showing that Iraq had not been seeking nuclear material from Niger. But a bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that his investigation had yielded little valuable information, hadn't reached the White House and hadn't disproved the Iraq-Niger link - in fact, in some ways it supported the link.

Mr. Wilson presented himself as a courageous truth-teller who was being attacked by lying partisans, but he himself became a Democratic partisan (working with the John Kerry presidential campaign) who had a problem with facts. He denied that his wife had anything to do with his assignment in Niger, but Senate investigators found a memo in which she recommended him.

Karl Rove's version of events now looks less like a smear and more like the truth: Mr. Wilson's investigation, far from being requested and then suppressed by a White House afraid of its contents, was a low-level report of not much interest to anyone outside the Wilson household.

So what exactly is this scandal about? Why are the villagers still screaming to burn the witch? Well, there's always the chance that the prosecutor will turn up evidence of perjury or obstruction of justice during the investigation, which would just prove once again that the easiest way to uncover corruption in Washington is to create it yourself by investigating nonexistent crimes.

For now, though, it looks as if this scandal is about a spy who was not endangered, a whistle-blower who did not blow the whistle and was not smeared, and a White House official who has not been fired for a felony that he did not commit. And so far the only victim is a reporter who did not write a story about it.

It would be logical to name it the Not-a-gate scandal, but I prefer a bilingual variation. It may someday make a good trivia question:

What do you call a scandal that's not scandalous?

Nadagate.

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