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Jul 14, 2005 | 10:49 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Wednesday, July 13, 2005

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
It now appears to be official: It was Karl Rove who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to TIME magazine's Mark Cooper. At the very least, this is what Cooper claimed on Wednesday, with some substantiating evidence. He had a letter from Rove's lawyer releasing him from his pledge of confidentiality. This is a serious business. Plame was said to be a CIA officer working under non-official cover — a NOC. That means she was not protected by diplomatic status nor known to be associated with the CIA. In many parts of the world, having this status revealed can mean death. A 1982 law, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, makes it a federal crime to knowingly identify an undercover officer. Now, some have argued that Rove knew that she was CIA but did not know she was a NOC. If that is true, then he may not have been in violation of the law, but he was in violation of his security clearance (without which you don't work in the White House) that would prohibit discussing such matters with anyone not similarly cleared and with a need to know. In Washington, people are frequently identified as "Agency" by others, and frequently identify themselves with a wink and nod. It is a weird game that goes on all the time. Nevertheless, for someone in Rove's position to play that game with a TIME reporter amounts to a monumental lapse of judgment. If it was done to get revenge on Plame's husband, a former ambassador, for his work on Niger, it was a hell of a way to do it. It is hard to see how Rove will survive this. A liberal might make some strange civil liberties argument, but this is the Bush administration — whose primary mission has been national security and increasing intelligence capabilities. If the president lets this slide, his ability to defend other secrecy measures, such as those contained in the Patriot Act, become untenable. Unless Rove comes up with a convincing explanation for leaking to Cooper that shows this whole affair to be utterly benign and misconstrued, it is impossible to see how he survives politically, let alone avoids felony charges. Whatever else you might say in his favor, the fact is that he violated his security clearance by revealing Plame's identity. If he didn't know she was a NOC, he still revealed an identity. If he did know, he committed a crime. It is true that others in Washington do this, but not the president's closest adviser. He gets held to higher standards. Now, projecting into the future, we would like to raise a point we made early in Bush's second term. It is an interesting thing that second terms are more difficult than first terms. Clinton was impeached during his second term. Reagan faced the Iran-contra hearings. Johnson had Vietnam. Nixon had Watergate, and on and on. The reason for all this seems to center on the fact that incaution grows during the second term: Without the need to consider the next election, the president feels a sense of release and, after re-election, a sense of vindication. It's during second terms that errors in judgment sometimes pyramid. The Rove situation is precisely the sort of event, if mishandled, that can turn into a second-term disaster. If the president decides to go to the wall for his friend, the Rove affair will become the dominant issue for the Democrats and the media. Whatever its merits, the case will tie down the administration. If actions were taken to cover up the incident, or if others were involved, it becomes even worse. The Bush administration is in the process of working its way through Iraq. One of the prerequisites for this is a sense that the presidency is secure. A crippled president would weaken the U.S. political position with dramatic rapidity. It has geopolitical consequences. Precisely because the Rove affair will impact U.S. intelligence, it will create instability at the heart of the U.S. war-making machine throughout the region. The last thing the United States wants is to give the insurgents in Iraq a sense that the president will weaken over time. Rove did a stupid thing. In the greater scheme of things, it might have been a minor act of malice. But he is in a position in which there is little margin for error. Now, the only issue is how and when he leaves office. If he leaves under his own power, and there are no others involved in the leak, the matter can be contained for the president. But if Bush tries to tough it out, he will find that there are many ways to spell "Monica Lewinsky" — and the geopolitical consequences that ensue. But there is another concern to be borne in mind. Rove released Cooper from his pledge of confidentiality. New York Times reporter Judith Miller is still in jail. That would indicate that Rove did not release Miller, freeing her to speak. That indicates that he is not able to release her, because he didn't leak to her. That means that there is another leaker. If that person turns out to be in the White House, then it goes from a stupid error in judgment to a two-person conspiracy. If that happened, the resignations will have to be immediate — and even that might not be enough. This is now serious, and could have significant global consequences.

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