Scandals metastasize. That is the pattern since Watergate. What starts out looking like a small, isolated incident gradually reveals itself to be part of a larger abuse of power. Meanwhile, an unraveling coverup adds new elements. Is that happening now with the scandal over White House leaks of the identity of a CIA agent?
Some folks say that as we learn more, the scandal is getting smaller, not larger. Valerie Plame was a CIA functionary commuting openly to agency headquarters, not a spy working behind enemy lines. The law against revealing the identities of intelligence agents is complicated and probably wasn’t broken in this case. And the story line gets muddier: Journalists may have revealed Plame’s identity to White House honchos.
We don’t buy it. However they came to learn about this juicy factoid, people in the Bush administration misused an intelligence secret to discredit a critic of its Iraq policy. And outing Plame, whether illegal or not, did harm to our national security. Plame may work in Langley, Va., but she worked with others who work in more dangerous locales. You only need to imagine how Republicans would have treated such a leak in the Clinton administration to dismiss their protestations that it’s all no big deal.
It’s a good bet that there has already been some lying under oath. One theory about the puzzling tenacity and ferocity of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald -- why he is sending journalists to jail for refusing to provide information he already has about an activity that probably wasn’t even a crime by people other than the ones he is persecuting -- is that he’s switched his attention from the leak itself to perjury by White House officials who were asked about it earlier in the investigation.
Perjury is your classic coverup method, and still is used when other methods have failed. Advances in the science of spin since Watergate, however, have made a high-risk, Nixon-style coverup unnecessary in many situations.
President Bush says he won’t publicly comment about the Plame case while the investigation continues. But the reason the investigation continues is partly his fault. He should have determined early on who leaked Plame’s CIA identity to members of the press, and dealt with it.
Why didn’t Bush two years ago just ask Karl Rove and a few others in the administration whether they had leaked Plame’s identity to Bob Novak and the others? Why doesn’t he ask Rove now? Is it because he knows the answer? Or because he doesn’t want to have to fire Rove?
As a precaution against such a catastrophe, Bush now says he will fire anyone found to have broken the law by outing an undercover intelligence operative. Previously he had said he would fire anyone who outs an intelligence officer, period.
The coverup, in short, is going well.