A bother for Bush

THE WHITE House initially perhaps believed that the storm over the leak to the media of the name of an undercover Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative would blow over; or at least that it could ride it out. But neither happened and the result is a scandal in the works.

Watergate, the argument goes, was about invasion of privacy; but it did not jeopardise lives in America or elsewhere. The trouble started over the cover-up of a burglary. However, blowing the cover of an undercover CIA operative does endanger lives, in the United States and elsewhere.

The present scandal has to do with more than 10 years in jail and a fine of $50,000 for divulging classified information. The Democrats see an opening and stand to gain as long as they remain focussed on the investigation per se, and not on the Attorney General, John Ashcroft.

The U.S. President, George Bush's statement that the "leaks" bothered him but that there were plenty of them doing the rounds in the Executive and Legislative branches has done little to ease the heat. The argument that in any given year the Justice Department is asked to investigate some 50 such cases has not held. This one involving Valerie Plame-Wilson is quite different and for two reasons.

First, it has to do with the manner in which the Bush administration has gone about its business in Iraq; and secondly, with a running battle between the White House and the CIA and its head, George Tenet — again over Iraq.

On the U.S. action in Iraq, critics have started paying more attention to the details in the run-up to the war and its aftermath. What has come to bother many is the fact that the Republican administration had nothing but claims on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. They were used to justify the war, but the weapons, which were supposed to be unearthed, remain elusive.

Six months down the line, and with literally nothing to show on the WMD front, this administration is being hammered on a daily basis on Capitol Hill and by the Democratic Pack of Ten seeking the party's presidential nomination. Worse still, the Republican administration has spent some $ 300 million looking for WMD and is supposedly going to Congress for another $600 millions to give "finality" to its report, whatever it may be.

In the face of the developments in the post-conflict phase, law-makers — Republican and Democratic — are increasingly questioning the administration on the intelligence assessment front.

The big question is whether the President and his advisers just accepted what nodal intelligence agencies such as the CIA said on Iraq, or embellished it to back a particular point of view. With the 2004 elections gathering momentum, the heat is being felt in the White House.

One of the major problems for the White House was the infamous sentence in Mr. Bush's State of the Union Address, referring to a British Government report that Iraq tried to source uranium yellow cake from Africa. And this is where George Tenet, Valerie Plame-Wilson and Joseph Wilson all come in.

After the initial bungling in the White House on who indeed was responsible for those infamous words pertaining to Iraq and uranium, it came to light that Mr. Tenet had advised the administration to drop references to Iraq and Africa (Niger) on at least one earlier instance.

And not without good reason — the agency, a year earlier, had sent Ambassador Wilson on an assignment to get to the bottom of the Iraq-Africa or Iraq-Niger link. Mr. Wilson came to the conclusion that the linkages were dubious at best. But Mr. Wilson's "troubles" started when he challenged the administration openly in July this year.

The Justice Department's investigation is not simple by any stretch of imagination — it will have to pin down who in the administration revealed the name of Mr. Wilson's wife as being an undercover CIA operative. And with this will hopefully come the motives, if the investigators are able to get to the bottom of the issue at all. Some argue that the reason for the leak was to question the credibility of Mr. Wilson, that he got the CIA assignment because his wife worked there and not on his own merits.

Washington is a town known for political paybacks and it would indeed be truly disturbing if vengeance or spite was why Ms. Plame's name came out in the open — just to show the administration's detractors what was in store if they challenged the White House.