Text size

In the scandal that led last week to the indictment of Lewis Libby, U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney's chief of staff, there's a lesson to learn anew for Israel, which is so woven into the Washington experience that once again it is not a foreign body but a faction involved, for good and for bad, in American domestic struggles. No matter how strong, when it clashes with another faction, like the Pentagon (in the China weapons sales) or the FBI (AIPAC/Larry Franklin), it is also bruised. That's what happened to the highest echelon of the Republican party in the current administration through its interaction with the CIA.

The federal prosecutor from Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, acquired a certain degree of understanding in the backroom doings of the world of the press (he also investigated and is working to convict the prior owners of The Jerusalem Post). His charges against Libby expose the interactions between politics, security and media - those who sometimes hide like camouflaged soldiers behind the title "sources in Washington." The investigation sought to find who was whose source - was it the journalist's official or the official's journalist. This time, the sources handed each other in.

The American intelligence community, with all its means and agents, did not know how to answer, in 2002, a specific question that was bothering Cheney - did Iraq buy nuclear material from Niger? To clarify the issue, a reinforcement was called in, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Africa, husband of a research officer in the CIA's department for weapons of mass destruction. Administration loyalists found a conspiracy to explain Wilson's public criticism of Bush as the 2004 elections approached. Wilson wants a Democratic president (who would give him a senior position); his mission to examine the Niger issue was an initiative of the CIA, where his wife, Valerie Plame works. Therefore, this was one more clash between the State Department (Wilson's former employer) and the CIA, the stronghold of the soft, moderate line in the administration, against the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President, who urged the combative hard line - Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA director George Tenet against Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well.

Bush adopted the Cheney-Rumsfeld line. In his view, if Wilson is married to the CIA, that's proof. Exposing the fact through the mention of Plame was considered a good leak, as opposed to bad leaks, which endanger security, and which Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney make sure to frown at.

(In 1990, then-defense secretary Cheney removed Air Force commander Michael Dugan, who talked too much and told the Washington Post about the plan for the assault on Iraq.) Revealing the secret name gave the other camp, with Wilson at its front, a lever for moving the affair to the level of criminal investigations, according to the law that prohibits revealing the names of undercover intelligence operatives. The CIA, part and parcel of the administration, asked the Justice Department to order a criminal probe.

From then on, the main suspects, Libby and Bush's political advisor Karl Rove, had to focus on two main efforts - gaining time, so the investigation would end only after the elections, and hiding the source. This did not mean hiding their identity as journalistic sources, but concealing the source from which they learned that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. As far as the law is concerned, that's the crucial issue. A person who exposes the identity of an undercover agent is put on trial if that identity becomes known to him from an official source, and if the identity is reported to someone who is not authorized to receive it, for the purpose of exposing the agent. If Libby was only a transmitter who heard gossip from one reporter (who was looking for conformation), replaying it to another journalist, he is innocent in both regards. Fitzgerald did not believe him, and maybe he'll convince the jurors.

Here's an accounting of the campaign: Both sides were hurt, but Tenet and Powell are out, and Cheney and Rumsfeld survived (personally, but they have lost their advisors Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, and now Libby) and with them, their ally, John Bolton, the ambassador to the UN. There's also the balance of mutually-assured destruction: Tenet, responsible for the failures in both deterrence and assessment, has not attacked Bush, and his successor at the CIA, Porter Goss, a political appointment by Bush, shelved a recommendation by the CIA's comptroller to reprimand Tenet and others for their 9/11 failures.

Politicians are careful about harming intelligence chiefs, including former chiefs. Former FBI director Louis Freeh was a constant critic of the Clinton-Gore administration, and whenever the issue of cutting Jonathan Pollard's sentence comes up, intelligence veterans threaten to denounce the politicians who want to make Israel happy as violating security. Pollard, who was sentenced to a life term, already has a date for his freedom, November 12, 2015, the 30th anniversary of his arrest outside the Israeli embassy. As far as is known, that was a Justice Department decision, without any political intervention.