Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Fitzgerald Needs to Make a Second Correction

Josh Gerstein of The Sun reports that the special prosecutor investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity Patrick Fitzgerald retreated yesterday from an assertion that news outlets and critics of the administration seized on as evidence that President Bush and Vice President Cheney deliberately distorted a crucial intelligence summary on Iraq.

The erroneous assertion was that, “Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, that a key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium." As several news reports have observed, this was not a “key finding,” a term that denotes high probability and consensus by the intelligence analysts.

The corrected sentence now reads: "Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, some of the key judgments of the NIE, and that the NIE stated that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium." So obviously, Mr. Libby did not misrepresent a judgment as a “key finding in an attempt to hype the information.

But there is another matter of significance here, so far not examined. Mr. Gerstein reports that the prosecutor is,” investigating whether White House officials deliberately leaked the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, to retaliate against her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who challenged Mr. Bush's public assessment of Iraqi nuclear weapons efforts.”

The investigation, as I understand it, is not to investigate the motives of Mr. Libby or anyone else, but whether a crime has been committed. Mr. Fitzgerald has not alleged the underlying crime of revealing the name of a covert intelligence agent, he has charged with Mr. Libby only with lying in his grand jury testimony.

Yet, in doing so he has entered into the speculative swamp of motive. In his filing before the court he has alleged, a "concerted action" by "multiple people in the White House" -- using classified information -- to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" a critic of President Bush's war in Iraq, as the Washington Post article put it.

When information is put into public play that is untruthful and others set the record straight with correct information, the original misinformation and those who peddled it are certainly discredited. This is what happened to Joseph Wilson, who misrepresented both his trip and his findings in a New York Times Op Ed and later lied about being responsible for uncovering forged documents.

Given how much was at stake, including public confidence in an administration fighting a war in Iraq and more generally against terrorism, correcting damaging, but inaccurate misrepresentations by a clearly partisan and anti-Bush zealot was not only politically necessary, but a public responsibility.

As to punishing or seeking revenge, on what basis does Mr.Fitzgerald make this claim? Was it because the administration was angry at lies directed at it and the public about a subject of the most serious consequences? He doesn’t say.

My guess is that the administration was upset, and appropriately so. But does this support the prosecutor’s view that the administration wanted “revenge” or to “punish” Mr. Wilson.

What they no doubt wanted more than anything else was to present the facts as they were, not as Mr. Wilson had misrepresented them.

This is not punishment. Mr. Wilson’s clear hatred of the administration and its policies apparently protects him from the shame of having been publicly caught red-handed lying. Nor is revenge, by itself, a high priority motive since “getting even” is small consolation if the public believes the misinformation it gets and policies you think are crucial to national security suffer as a result.

Exposing Mr. Wilson as a liar with correct information addresses that main concern but clearly reflects poorly on him at the same time. That’s too bad for Mr. Wislon, but that is not "revenge," it is the price that truth exacts from lies.