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Let This Leak Go

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, October 13, 2005

The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals. As it is, all he has done so far is send Judith Miller of the New York Times to jail and repeatedly haul this or that administration high official before a grand jury, investigating a crime that probably wasn't one in the first place but that now, as is often the case, might have metastasized into some sort of coverup -- but, again, of nothing much. Go home, Pat.

The alleged crime involves the outing of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative whose husband, Joseph Wilson IV, had gone to Africa at the behest of the agency and therefore said he knew that the Bush administration -- no, actually, the president himself -- had later misstated (in the State of the Union address, yet) the case that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger.

Wilson made his case in a New York Times op-ed piece. This rocked the administration, which was already fighting to retain its credibility in the face of mounting and irrefutable evidence that the case it had made for war in Iraq -- weapons of mass destruction, above all -- was a fiction. So it set out to impeach Wilson's credibility, purportedly answering the important question of who had sent him to Africa in the first place: his wife. This was a clear case of nepotism, the leakers just as clearly implied.

Not nice, but it was what Washington does day in and day out. (For some historical perspective see George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck'' about Edward R. Murrow and that most odious of leakers-cum-character assassins, Joseph McCarthy.) This is rarely considered a crime. In the Plame case, it might technically be one, but it was not the intent of anyone to out a CIA agent and have her assassinated (which happened once) but to assassinate the character of her husband. This is an entirely different thing. She got hit by a ricochet.

Now we are told by various journalistic sources that Fitzgerald might not indict anyone for the illegal act he was authorized to investigate, but some other one -- maybe one concerning the disclosure of secret material. Here again, though, this is a daily occurrence in Washington, where most secrets have the shelf life of sashimi. Then, too, other journalists say that Fitzgerald might bring conspiracy charges, an attempt (or so it seems) to bring charges of some sort. This is what special prosecutors do and why they should always be avoided. (The one impaneled in 1995 to investigate then-HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros for lying about how much he was paying his mistress is still in operation, although the mistress most certainly is not.)

I have no idea what Fitzgerald will do. My own diligent efforts to find out anything have come to naught. Fitzgerald's non-speaking spokesman would not even tell me if his boss is authorized to issue a report, as several members of Congress are now demanding -- although Joseph E. diGenova, a former U.S. attorney in Washington, tells me that only a possibly unprecedented court order would permit it. Whatever the case, I pray Fitzgerald is not going to reach for an indictment or, after so much tumult, merely fold his tent, not telling us, among other things, whether Miller is the martyr to a free press that I and others believe she is or whether, as some lefty critics hiss, she's a double-dealing grandstander, in the manner of some of her accusers.

More is at stake here than bringing down Karl Rove or some other White House apparatchik, or even settling some score with Miller, who is sometimes accused of taking this nation to war in Iraq all by herself. The greater issue is control of information. If anything good comes out of the Iraq war, it has to be a realization that bad things can happen to good people when the administration -- any administration -- is in sole control of knowledge and those who know the truth are afraid to speak up. This -- this creepy silence -- will be the consequence of dusting off rarely used statutes to still the tongues of leakers and intimidate the press in its pursuit of truth, fame and choice restaurant tables. Apres Miller comes moi .

This is why I want Fitzgerald to leave now. Do not bring trivial charges -- nothing about conspiracies, please -- and nothing about official secrets, most of which are known to hairdressers, mistresses and dog walkers all over town. Please, Mr. Fitzgerald, there's so much crime in Washington already. Don't commit another.

cohenr@washpost.com

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