Vengeance in naming names?

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I’m trying to get this straight, but it’s hard work. Let’s see, now it’s against the law to identify a covert CIA operative, but a journalist can be jailed for refusing to identify the source who outed that covert agent. Hmmmm.

Newspapers in past weeks have devoted bezillions of column inches to what is now referred to as the Karl Rove affair. It used to be called the Judith Miller or Matthew Cooper First Amendment affair.

It seems increasingly likely that the current dustup isn’t really about either. It may be more about vengeance. Though the news media fear prosecution of journalists will have a chilling effect on investigative reporting, it’s fair to say administration reaction to criticism has already struck fear into the hearts of publishers and their formerly intrepid reporters. Hence the generally vapid news reporting that prevails in Washington.

The current administration may be the least open of any in modern history – they circle the wagons and wave the flag at the first hint of confrontation. But its architect is the all-time canniest political strategist of either party. A tad vindictive perhaps, but not dumb.

It’s hard to believe Rove didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he spoke to Cooper on “double super secret background” about a CIA operative who is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, an outspoken critic of the administration. In July, 2003, Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed piece, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” debunking Bush’s contention that Iraq had purchased uranium yellowcake from Niger.

Retribution, it seems, was the first response.

Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is conducting a Justice Department investigation into all this outing to determine if an obscure 1982 law protecting covert agents’ identities has been broken. Conservative columnist Robert Novak, the first to mention CIA operative Valerie Plame by name in a 2003 column, apparently felt no qualms at revealing how he came to know her name, as he hasn’t been threatened with jail time, although he steadfastly refuses to comment.

Miller, on the other hand, refused to reveal her source, even though she never actually wrote anything that was published about the affair. Since she had written extensively supporting the Bush rationale for war with Iraq, it now appears she was more interested in protecting the administration, Rove and her own credibility than the First Amendment.

Cooper also refused to cooperate until last week, when he said his source released him from their agreement of anonymity, after which Cooper testified for 2-1/2 hours before a federal grand jury. Time magazine previously released Cooper’s e-mail about his conversation with Rove. But, we still don’t know if Rove broke the law, as it is very narrowly drawn to protect inadvertent or careless disclosures by government employees. Rove claims he did not name Plame (a little parsing here?), and one would have to prove the act was deliberate and, well, vengeful.

There’s something kind of ominous about the naming of names. Brings to mind the McCarthy witch hunt of the ’50s where half the film industry was subpoenaed to reveal the names of colleagues who may have been communist sympathizers. This, too, was forced on us in the name of patriotism. And with the threat of black listing, names were named and careers ruined.

Meanwhile, Democrats and some disaffected Republicans say Rove’s security clearance should be revoked. Many are calling for Bush to make good on his promise to fire any White House staffer who had leaked the identity of undercover operative Plame. Wait a minute. How could Bush not have known that Rove was the leaker? The two are flipping joined at the hip.

Fitzgerald could also pursue Rove’s prosecution for perjury or obstruction of justice. What did he know and when did he know it? Has a familiar ring doesn’t it? Bush wouldn’t be the first to throw trusted aides to the wolves to save himself from accusations of complicity. Watergate, Iran Contra. Think Haldeman, Erlichman, Poindexter.

It’s possible we wouldn’t have been investigating this nonsense for two years at taxpayer expense if there had been a more robust debate about the Bush push to invade Iraq. But that would have been labeled unpatriotic.

Now, the whole brouhaha over reporters using unnamed sources is a distraction from issues before Congress that may have more devastating consequences. The House and Senate dueling versions of the ill-conceived energy bill face reconciliation. The pending nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor’s successor to the Supreme Court could affect life as we know it for decades.

The pitiful thing about the Rove affair is that even in the unlikely event that Bush would feel compelled to fire him, he would just set up shop in a private office and contract his services to the Republican Party, and indirectly to Bush, and we the taxpayers of this once free land would still be supporting all this retribution.

Vengeance is whose? Or was that lost in translation.