What Watergate could teach the White House

Somebody is lying. So wrote Terry Neal, a political reporter for the Washington Post reporter, on July 25 2005. He was writing about one of the strangest stories to engulf the White House since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. It is the story of an official investigation into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to the media. According to a 1982 law, that kind of leak would be illegal. Two prominent names have emerged in the investigation of the leak as possibilities – Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff, and Lewis Libby, vice-president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.

The investigation appears now to be heading towards a rapid conclusion. If the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, finds that either Mr Rove or Mr Libby or both violated the law, they would face criminal charges, and the Bush administration would quickly find itself enmeshed in a scandal of such dimensions that are it is already being compared to the Nixon-era Watergate scandal. of the Nixon era.

According to recent public recent opinion polls, including an August 7 poll in one Newsweek magazine, the American people are are increasingly of the view that Mr Rove, whom the resident Mr Bush described as the “architect” of his 2004 re-election, may be guilty of unethical or illegal behaviour in connection with the leak. For example, on August 7, 2005, Newsweek Newsweek magazine said that 45 per cent of those polled “believe he is guilty of a serious crime.”

Much is still not known about Mr Fitzgerald’s this investigation – Mr Fitzgerald he has insisted on absolute secrecy – but what is known strongly suggests that the Bush administration is engaged in a two-front war: one to cover up its blunders in the lead-up build-up to the Iraq war based and the a build-up based on the on the mistaken assumption that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed “weapons of mass destruction”, and the other to protect the leaker. and the other two to . The two fronts wars are now unmistakeably linked.

Even though President Mr Bush asserted on May 29, 2003, after the war, that “we found the weapons of mass destruction,” it soon It became painfully clear in the war’s aftermath of the that that Iraq had no such weapons and that Mr Bush’s the President’s justification for war was stunningly wrong. Therefore, it was “no accident”, as the Soviets used to say, no accident” that when Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador, Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed a comment article in the New York Times on July 6 2003 accusing the administration of “twisting” the intelligence to justify the war, the White House fussed and fumed – and struck back. Within days stories began to appear to appear in the media criticising and belittling Mr Wilson, which was bad enough, but and then, oddly, outing Valerie Plame, his CIA wife, by name. a leak that which proved to be a big mistake. In addition, The White House later vigorously denied that Mr Rove was “involved” in any way.

In Washington the outing of a CIA operative is no trifling matter, no ­partisan matter either, and within a few short months, the justice department was pressured into appointing appointed a public prosecutor. Mr ­Fitzgerald, a hard-nosed ambitious prosecutor from Chicago, plunged into a series of interviews with senior officials, including the president and vice-president. Mr Rove and Mr Libby were also ­interviewed. In fact, in a sequence described as most unusual by that lawyers saw as highly unusual, Mr Rove was summoned to testify three times before the grand jury. Most unusualunexpected, reporters suggested, wondered, for for someone uninvolvedthree times? . Mr Rove was also questioned twice by the FBI.

In recent weeks, speculation has grown rumours have swept through Washington that Mr Fitzgerald was investigating not just the identity of the leaker but also more serious charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. What had been, up to then, kept so quiet so hush-hush suddenly surfaced as front page news and cocktail chatter, deeply embarrassing and potentially damaging to the administration. and politically damaging to the President.For It turned out that Mr Rove and Mr Libby were “involved” in the leaking and the outing, White House denials notwithstanding, and and public opinion polls began to reflecting growing doubts about the honesty of the Bush president’s (and his administration. s) honesty and candor. An obvious link was being drawn between a security breach, which would have been a problem, and the war in Iraq, which is proving to be a disaster. Making matters worse, Complicating the matter, In a show Mr Fitzgerald’s spooky show of legalistic machismo, Mr Fitzgerald pursued jailed Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, for refusing to disclose her sources for a story that she never wrote did not end up writing about the Wilson-Plame affair, resulting in led to Ms Miller’s imprisonment. never wrote.

One A key lesson from the Watergate scandal is that sometimes the a cover-up can be worse than the crime. In this case, a usually media-savvy White House, stung by criticism of its justification for war, lashed out at one critic and then took the inexplicable and foolish step of orchestrating the outing of his CIA wife, unintentionally triggering leading to a chain of events. totally unintended.

It would have been so much better if the White House had simply acknowledged its blunder – and apologised. The American people would almost surely have “understood”.

The writer, co-author of The Media and the War on Terrorism, is senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press,
Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government

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