Thursday, October 02, 2003

The Plame Affair: White House playing defense 

Helpful Democrats have suggested a variety of ways for the criminal investigation in The Plame Affair to proceed expeditously (great Newsday coverage), including having White House officials sign affidavits or take polygraph tests to the effect that they didn't identify intelligence operative Valerie Plame, and that any staffer who refused to participate should be fired—apparently all standard investigative techniques in cases of this kind. (Interestingly, the Heritage Foundation advocates this course as well.) At this point, however, no investigators have showed up, and the realization is dawning that the probe could take a long time. No White House staffers have hired lawyers, as of yet.

This morning, an anonymous Republican Senator also tried to be helpful: "The lesson that all of these people never learn is: Cut your losses... The mistake they are making is the classic error - deny, obfuscate, delay, etc."

Could that helpful Senator have been (notoriously loose though Pennsylvanian cannon) Arlen Spector? Says Spector this afternoon: "[R]ecusal is something Ashcroft ought to consider." Interestingly, Spector was not on the list we gave earlier of Senators that the White House was watching, suggesting that the White House political operation is less efficient than usual right now. In fact, the White House assessment only this morning of "So far so good"—"There's nervousness on the part of the party leadership, but no defections in the sense of calling for an independent counsel"—has already collapsed. (Who would the Attorney General recuse himself in favor of except an independent counsel?)

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Scott McClellan seems to be taking refuge in technicalities. He categorized the above suggestions as "hypothetical" and refused to say whether Rove had encouraged journalists to write about Plame. "We're not going to go down every single allegation that someone makes. We can do that all day long. Let's stay focused on what the issue is here."

And speaking of technical details, the 11 hour delay between DOJ's "heads up" to the White House and the formal criminal referral was just about the time that Ollie North needed to destroy evidence back in the Iran-Contra affair, according to John Barrett, former federal prosecutor and law professor at St. John's university.

And speaking of criminal referrals, the process goes like this:

Justice Department officials say they received a CIA "crime report" about possible disclosure of classified information soon after Novak's column, then sent the agency a list of 11 standard questions to answer about the case. Those answers were received last week, leading to the decision to begin a probe.

So what did the DOJ ask, and what did the CIA answer? And what will the DOJ ask the other agencies, and what will they answer?

The Plame Affair today here; as treason here; versus Whitewater here. Oh, and there's Kremlinology from The Times and MSNBC.

UPDATE: Ashcroft's DOJ now expects other agencies, like the DOD and State, to be involved in the probe as well. This is interesting, since the original story involved White House officials, limiting the circle of suspects to about twenty. Widening the probe (what for?) would expand that circle to hundreds and take months. But surely there's no need for that? ABC's The Note reports that WaPo has returned to the language suggesting that the criminal was a "senior administration official" motivated by a desire for revenge.

UPDATE: The newest line seems to be that the White House didn't really want vengeance—the motive for the crime assigned by the officials who originally sparked this story (back)— the White House simply had "the desire to explain why, in their view, Wilson wasn’t a neutral investigator" when he did the investigation of the Niger yellowcake story. This line has its problems: if the White House only wanted to attack Wilson's neutrality, why not just do that, instead of revealing his wife's identity as an intelligence operative, which is a Federal crime?

UPDATE: DOJ's acting deputy Robert McCallum "is an old friend and Yale classmate" of Bush's; "both were members of the secret Skull & Bones Society at Yale."

UPDATE: Thanks to alert reader Sidhe.

UPDATE: Although the administration proposes to leave the matter in the hands of its career prosecutors, this will be difficult to carry out in practice, since DOJ regulations require the Attorney General to sign all subpoenas.

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