In a turn of events worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, Karl Rove is falling from the dizzying heights of untouchable omnipotence to the sordid depths of political scapegoat. Long regarded as Bush's political Svengali, Rove now finds himself in the cross-hairs of a legal and political manhunt for the White House official responsible for revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Having staunchly defended Rove in the past against his alleged involvement in the outing of Plame, the White House now finds itself in the untenable position of withholding comment in deference to the ongoing criminal investigation. No one, not even the press, is buying the White House's current policy of silence on Rove's involvement in the Plame affair. The skepticism arises out of the fact that, while the investigation was ongoing, the White House on repeated occasions summarily dismissed any question of Rove's involvement as "totally ridiculous."
The White House's abrupt switch from dismissive boasting to contrite silence speaks volumes.
Like corporate executives or major league baseball players who take the Fifth rather than testify before Congress about their malfeasance or steroid use, the White House's sudden resort to "no comment" amounts to a silent admission of wrongdoing. If someone didn't have the goods on Rove, you can rest assured that the White House would still be arrogantly brushing aside any and all questions about Rove's role in outing Plame.
For Rove, the jig is up, and the White House knows it.
However, there are still those who argue that even if Rove did reveal Plame's identity to the media, he didn't do anything wrong. Take for instance P. J. O'Rourke, columnist for The Weekly Standard. According to O'Rourke's column in the July 18, 2005, issue of the Standard, Rove could not have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act because Plame was "hiding in plain sight." O'Rourke claims that at the time she was outed, "Plame was working a desk job at CIA headquarters."
Assuming O'Rourke is correct about Plame's desk status, that is irrelevant to the question of Rove's wrongdoing. Under federal statute, it is a felony offense (punishable by 3 to 10 years imprisonment) to disclose any information identifying a covert agent to any unauthorized person. For purposes of the statute, a "covert agent" includes "a present or retired officer or employee of an intelligence agency," whose identity as such is classified information, and who is serving or has served outside the U.S. "within the last five years." Thus, that Plame might have been on desk duty at the time her identity was revealed is immaterial. So long as she was an intelligence officer who had served outside of the United States within five years before she was outed, and whose identity was classified, then anyone who intentionally disclosed any identifying information regarding Plame committed a felony offense.
It remains for the grand jury to decide whether or not there is probable cause to believe that Plame was a covert agent whom Rove revealed as political payback against Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson. The White House, for its part, is clearly, albeit silently, concerned.
O'Rourke also claims that "the secret identities of CIA covert agents" are known to everyone. Therefore, according to O'Rourke, if Rove revealed Plame's identity as a covert agent, all he really did was repeat an open secret. Somehow I think Porter Goss would disagree with O'Rourke's assertion that the identities of CIA covert agents are actually widely known. If that were true, there would be no need for the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Then again, if O'Rourke is right and everyone knows the secret identities of all CIA covert agents, it would explain the dearth of human intelligence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
At any rate, whether or not Plame's identity as a covert agent was widely known, as O'Rourke claims, that would be no defense to Rove's alleged criminal act of revealing her identity to the press. Under statute, there are certain enumerated defenses to the crime of identifying a covert agent. Those defenses include public disclosure by the U.S. of the agent's identity, disclosure to select Congressional intelligence committees, and an agent's disclosure of his or her own identity. O'Rourke's "common knowledge" claim does not fall within any of these statutory defenses.
Did Rove reveal Plame's identity as a covert agent in order to screw her husband for daring to criticize Rove's prodigy? That remains to be seen. However, if the allegations are true and Rove deliberately endangered national security as part of a political vendetta, he very likely committed a felony offense under federal law. That Plame may have been a desk jockey whose secret identity was widely known would be no defense to Rove's potential criminal liability.
It also remains to be seen how long Bush will stand behind the man who propelled him to office. Bush applauds himself for his loyalty. We're about to find out just how deep that loyalty runs.
Ken Sanders is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Visit his weblog at: www.politicsofdissent.blogspot.com/.
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