Monday, October 24, 2005

Washington on precipice as CIA leak storm set to break

Sun Oct 23, 4:22 PM ET

Rife with rumors, Washington is braced for a political earthquake over an intricate CIA leak scandal, with a special prosecutor apparently narrowing in on key aides to President George W. Bush and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has spent 22 months investigating whether senior White House aides committed a crime by blowing the cover of spy Valerie Plame to avenge her husband Joseph Wilson's fierce criticism in 2003 of the intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.

Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby and Bush's political guru Karl Rove are hard knuckle Bush aides most often mentioned as likely targets, and one report this week in the New York Daily News suggested Cheney himself might be in the frame.

"Reading the tea leaves, it looks like something more is going on now," said Katy Harriger, a law professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, who has written two books on previous presidential investigations.

"There is some speculation that it might be that Cheney is in the sights as well and that is very big," she told AFP, noting that Fitzgerald may have moved away from the original scope of the inquiry and be mulling wider charges such as conspiracy or perjury.

Bush critics are salivating, because they at last see hope that the White House will pay for what they see as lies and half truths told to grease the path to war.

But the drama could produce no criminal charges and allow Bush to escape a moment of high political peril, analysts said.

"Prosecutors investigate, and sometimes they don't indict," said Kathleen Clark, an expert of national security law at Washington University of St. Louis, noting that if he found no way to prove wrongdoing, Fitzgerald could just fold up his tent and return to Chicago.

Perhaps the most remarkable facet of this drama has been the sight of the once all powerful, fiercely disciplined White House, seemingly in disarray just nine months into Bush's second term.

Bloodshed in Iraq as US deaths approach 2,000, clumsy handling of Bush's latest Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and rising gasoline prices have sent the president's once sturdy approval ratings tumbling.

A stench of scandal meanwhile clings to Bush's fellow Republicans with former House of Representatives majority leader Tom DeLay indicted for money-laundering and Senate Majority leader Bill Frist under a cloud over stock dealings.

"It fits into the big picture of this apparent machine unraveling that everybody thought was invulnerable," said Harriger.

"If everything else were going great, this might seem less significant."

Bush dismissed troubles crowding his political horizon as "background noise" but observers are already using the dreaded term "lame duck" to refer to Bush, who is desperate to fend off the curse of second-term presidents who find their power ebbing.

Anticipation over the scandal is reaching new heights because the mandate of the grand jury Fitzgerald has used to question witnesses in the probe is due to expire on Friday.

The case dates from the feverish days before the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003 when the Bush administration pushed intelligence purportedly showing that Saddam Hussein already had, or was bent on acquiring, weapons of mass destruction.

On one occasion, Bush warned America had to act fast because "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Wilson, a former US ambassador to Gabon, was sent to Niger in February 2002 to investigate claims Saddam tried to buy uranium for nuclear bombs but concluded it was doubtful such transfers took place.

The claim still found its way into Bush's annual state of the union address a year later, prompting Wilson to stew for six months before unleashing a New York Times article in which he warned top US officials may have ignored data which contradicted the case for war.

On July 7, 2003, the White House admitted the Niger claim rested on flawed intelligence, and should never have made it into the speech.

Conservative columnist Robert Novak then reported that "two senior administration officials" told him that Plame, Wilson's wife, was a CIA operative working on weapons of mass destruction and had suggested his mission.

Wilson accused top White House officials of deliberately sabotaging his wife's cover, and said Rove was worthy of "frog marching" out of the presidential mansion in handcuffs.

In the Watergate scandal, Senator Howard Baker was credited with the iconic phrase "what did the president know and when did he know it," to question the extent of doomed president Richard Nixon's culpability.

Three decades on, all Washington is now asking, "what does the prosecutor know, and when will he tell it?"

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