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A cynical betrayal

The exposure of a CIA officer's identity calls attention to a broader White House effort to intimidate anyone who might challenge its claims against Iraq.

Published October 5, 2003

The apparently intentional exposure of a CIA officer's identity by someone in the Bush administration is a serious offense that warrants a thorough investigation and, if necessary, a vigorous prosecution. As the first President Bush, a former director of the CIA, noted years ago, those in power who betray the work of our intelligence community are "the most insidious of traitors." Attorney General John Ashcroft's politically tainted Justice Department has only a short time to show that it is capable of a full and independent inquiry. Otherwise, the Washington Republicans who so loved special prosecutors during the Clinton years will look like hypocrites if they oppose one in this case.

But as that investigation goes forward, the country should remain focused on the more important issue this case has illuminated: the Bush administration's broader effort to discredit and intimidate anyone - even members of its own team - who challenged the dubious intelligence claims on which the administration based its case for war in Iraq.

When the CIA and other intelligence agencies failed to find solid evidence of Iraq's illegal weapons programs, the administration created a new agency in the Pentagon to produce the desired results. When military leaders such as the then-Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, differed with optimistic White House assumptions about the military and economic costs of occupying postwar Iraq, they were ridiculed and replaced. When NATO allies such as Germany and France raised questions about evidence at the heart of the administration's rush to war, they were ostracized.

In each case, the administration appears to have tailored the evidence to fit a predetermined policy. And in each case, subsequent events have vindicated those who challenged the administration's claims.

The case of retired diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV and his wife certainly fits that broader pattern. Wilson, who served with distinction under Republican and Democratic presidents, is an Africa expert who publicly debunked the administration's claim, repeated in the president's State of the Union address, that Iraq had sought nuclear material from Niger.

Wilson was proved correct: The president's assertion was based on crudely forged documents. But instead of thanking Wilson for correcting the record, someone in the White House apparently set out to punish him - and to send a message to anyone else who might be considering challenging the administration's assertions about Iraq.

A subsequent article by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, alluding to conversations with two "senior administration officials," revealed the classified information that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative. The White House has promised to cooperate fully with the Justice Department investigation to determine who was responsible for that breach. However, some members of the administration, including the president's press secretary, are still trying to discredit Wilson. Their characterization of Wilson's political motivations are misleading and irrelevant. The facts are the facts: Wilson was right about the Iraq-Niger story, and at least one person in the Bush administration apparently tried to punish him by exposing and endangering his wife.

It is against the law, for obvious reasons, for a government official to reveal the identity of an undercover intelligence officer. We will soon know how seriously the Justice Department, the White House and other administration agencies intend to respond to this cynical act of betrayal.

[Last modified October 5, 2003, 01:49:47]


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