Articles

Oct 07, 2003

Kelly and Plame, Special to the Site

Some Lessons From London
In the rapidly developing story of the Bush administration’s leaking of the name of a CIA operative to a columnist for the Washington Post the Bush White House would do well to consider how a similar scandal has damaged the credibility of its British ally, Tony Blair. In each case the scandal revolves around leaks made by both governments to discredit criticism of their respective policies on Iraq. Moreover, the two people most damaged by those leaks both specialized in the esoteric discipline of investigating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the very specialists Bush and Blair are most in need of right now.

In July an official in the Blair government fingered a scientist at the Ministry of Defense, David Kelly, as the source of an explosive BBC story that suggested that the government had ?sexed up? a dossier about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in order to bolster the case for war in Iraq. Kelly subsequently committed suicide, prompting an inquiry led by Lord Hutton that has proven embarrassing to the Blair government. While the BBC story was shown to be overblown, revelations from the inquiry have nonetheless done considerable harm to the Blair government. The day after Blair testified at the Hutton inquiry his closest aide, Alistair Campbell, resigned. Polls show that “dissatisfaction” with Blair, rose from 52 percent before the inquiry to 61 percent by the end of the hearings in September, while a whopping 70 percent said Blair’s government had become “too concerned with P.R. and spin.”
The story of the leaking of the CIA operative’s name has followed much the same trajectory as the Kelly affair. In July Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a now-retired diplomat, wrote an editorial in the New York Times explaining that he had been drafted by the Bush administration in February 2002 to follow up allegations that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger. Wilson said that following a trip to Niger he concluded those allegations were bogus and reported his findings to the CIA, yet President Bush still used the Niger claims six months later in his State of the Union address that preceded the Iraq war. Shortly after Wilson’s important revelation “two senior administration officials” briefed six reporters, including Robert Novak a conservative columnist at the Washington Post, that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative. Novak was the only reporter who chose to publish the information. The officials who briefed the reporters have chosen not to publicly identify themselves as the authors of this “outi
ng” of a CIA spy and specialist in WMD, but the Justice Department is now investigating the matter and as the investigation proceeds forward some of the internal deliberations at the White House about the Iraqi WMD issue are likely to become public. As with the inquiry into Kelly’s suicide the public airing of those deliberations may not be a pretty sight.
There is a further lesson for the Bush administration in the Kelly episode. For the British public much of the debate surrounding the state of Iraqi WMD programs and the possibility that the Blair government spun the available intelligence about those programs further than was warranted was somewhat technical and hard to follow, while the story of Kelly’s suicide was an easy to understand morality tale of an overbearing government seemingly willing to use any tactic to protect its stance that Iraqi WMD posed an imminent threat to British interests. So too, while the American public is fuzzy on the details of the Iraqi WMD story–many of them incorrectly believe that WMD have already been found– most Americans instinctively understand that leaking the name of a CIA operative is wrong and illegal. The public may also conclude that such an action was taken to in some way to undermine Wilson?s critique of one of the key parts of the Bush administration?s rationale for war in Iraq; the notion that it had an acti
ve nuclear weapons program, which purchases of Niger’s uranium would seem to confirm.
So when historians come to examine the question of how much justification the Bush and Blair governments had for the first “preventative” war of the modern era, a war that, at this writing, appears to have been based on flawed assumptions about imperfect intelligence, the suicide of David Kelly and the abrupt termination of the career of Joe Wilson’s wife will be seen as the personal tragedies that led to an examination of the larger issues raised by a war that increasingly appears to have been a war of choice rather than a war of necessity.

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