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Commentary

A Roving Ethical Problem


     
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Much of Washington is abuzz about whether Karl Rove, the president’s deputy chief of staff and chief political operative, or perhaps other Bush administration officials, broke a law that prohibits government officials from disclosing the identity of CIA covert operatives. Ironically, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act—passed in 1982 after Philip Agee, a disaffected former CIA agent, divulged the names and positions of CIA agents worldwide—was heavily promoted by George W. Bush’s father as Vice President and is usually supported by hawks like those in the Bush administration.

Defenders of Rove maintain that he received the information that Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, worked for the CIA from reporters and not vice-versa. Also, they claim that Rove did not mention her by name and that his intent was not malicious, but merely to confirm that the CIA sent Wilson to Africa, at the suggestion of his wife, to determine whether Saddam Hussein had sought to buy yellow cake uranium to build nuclear bombs. These defenses are shaky, but even if they are true, Rove has still acted unethically and should be fired.

The claim that Rove merely learned that Plame worked for the CIA from reporters and was not initiating calls to them has been debunked. Although the possibility exists that conservative columnist Robert D. Novak told Rove that his sources said that Wilson had been sent on the mission at the suggestion of his CIA-employed wife, Rove volunteered—rather than confirmed—this information to Matthew Cooper of Time. According to Cooper, Rove did not mention her name and did not say that she was a covert agent. Cooper has noted that Rove said that she worked for the “agency” on “WMD” (weapons of mass destruction).

These latter details may keep Rove out of jail. The law is written narrowly and requires a high threshold of criminality: a government official who has disclosed an operative’s identity must have known that the agent had active covert status (which Plame did). But those legal technicalities should not keep Rove out of hot water.

Washington is a rough and tumble political town in which everyone, including journalists, has been socialized into accepting the culture of playing the game with hardball tactics. And Rove is the king of bare knuckle brawling. Remember, Rove had the chutzpah to smear two decorated war veterans—John McCain and John Kerry—to better the chances of George W. Bush, who didn’t even show up regularly during the Vietnam era for a safe, hard-to-get National Guard position that he got through political connections. (But George W. Bush is not the first president to hire a crack political hatchet man; remember Dick Morris during the Clinton administration?)

The problem with being socialized into such an “anything goes” culture is that it becomes hard for political operatives to know when they’ve crossed the line. And Rove has stepped way over it this time.

Even the best scenario—Rove and other administration officials, such as Vice President Cheney’s chief aide “Scooter” Libby, merely confirming that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA without mentioning her name or her covert status—is grounds for immediate termination. First, the excuse that they were merely providing a defense against Wilson’s charges that the administration was twisting intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat is bunk. Their lame defense consisted of mentioning that Plame suggested that her husband be sent on the mission. With his experience in both Iraq and Africa, it would have been hard to find a more qualified man for the mission to Niger than Ambassador Wilson. Rove and other administration officials were clearly trying to “out” Plame because Wilson’s mission challenged the administration’s claims about Saddam’s quest for uranium in Niger. In September 2003, an unnamed senior White House official told the Washington Post that before Novak’s piece appeared, at least six journalists were told about Plame “purely and simply out of revenge.”

Even merely confirming that Plame worked for the CIA without naming her violates ethical responsibilities for officials with government security clearances—which Rove, Libby and other senior administration officials possess. CIA employees, whether in covert status or not, do not usually advertise where they work, so as to protect themelves against being targeted by foreign espionage. Worse, covert agents who are exposed could face death or torture. In Plame’s case, however, the jeopardy to her was probably less than the danger to her cooperating informants in the autocratic nations trying to obtain WMD. If a reporter asked Rove about Plame working for the CIA, the proper response was “no comment,” not “I heard that, too.”

Allegedly, the United States invaded Iraq to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Yet in retaliating against Wilson, an envoy who challenged the Bush administration’s claims on Saddam’s efforts to get WMD, Rove and perhaps others undermined the CIA’s efforts to get information on such proliferation by “outing” Plame. This contradiction is one more indication that the invasion of Iraq had little to do with Iraqi WMD programs.

It is fine for presidents to have aggressive political consultants, but those advisors shouldn’t be given government policy positions that require security clearances. The “Rove affair” is a confirmation of the mischief that arises when those two roles are merged.

President Bush has promised to fire any administration official who leaked the name of a CIA operative. This administration implicitly and unfairly accused opponents of the Iraq War of being “unpatriotic,” but now is the time for the president to keep his promise and fire his top political aide for engaging in real unpatriotic activities.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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