Did someone in the White House commit a felony offence?
Speculation that would not be out of place in a plot from the TV hit series West Wing has been mounting.
Since the Department of Justice announced it was launching an investigation into allegations that senior Bush administration officials leaked the name of a covert CIA operative as a retaliatory move against former US ambassador Joseph Wilson, speculation has been mounting.
Wilson is the ex-diplomat who helped shatter US and UK intelligence claims that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium ore from the West African nation of Niger.
His wife, Valerie Plame, is the alleged undercover agent whose identity was revealed by syndicated columnist Robert Novak in a 14 July Washington Post editorial, in which he wrote that two senior administration officials tipped him off about her employment at the CIA.
Wilson says multiple sources, including several reporters, told him the leak came from someone at the White House, and that he believes it must have at least been ‚Äúcondoned‚ÄĚ by Karl Rove, the president‚Äôs top political strategist.
If a Bush administration official were responsible for the leak, it would constitute a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a felony offence for any government employee to knowingly reveal the identity of a covert US operative. A conviction carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
US Attorney General John Ashcroft has called for a probe
Attorney General, John Ashcroft, said on Tuesday that the Justice Department‚Äôs counter-espionage section had begun a criminal investigation shortly after receiving an updated request from the CIA to look into the matter.
While Democrats in Congress smell blood in the water, with several calling for the appointment of a special independent council to head the investigation, many political experts in Washington say it is doubtful the story will develop into a full-blown political scandal.
‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs a serious gaffe ... but I really don‚Äôt think that in the greater scheme of things it‚Äôs going to add up to much,‚ÄĚ said James Gibney, the executive editor at Foreign Policy Magazine.
For one thing, it is often difficult to uncover the origin of leaks in Washington, said Jay Farrar, the vice president of external affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a political think tank in Washington.
Reporters such as Novak are constitutionally protected from having to reveal anonymous sources. Unless whoever is behind the leak comes forward with what they know, the investigation is unlikely to produce any criminal indictments, Farrar said.
The question is ‚Äúhow far can you squeeze these people to cough up and say ‚ÄėI did it‚Äô?‚ÄĚ he said.
On the other hand, media reports indicate that several individuals, other than Novak, know the names of the officials who leaked the story, something that makes it much more difficult to keep the truth from coming out, said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a DC-based think tank.
‚Äú(Karl Rove) was not involved, and that allegation is not true in terms of leaking classified information, nor would he condone it‚ÄĚ
White House press secretary
‚ÄúI would assume that this should be a pretty easy one to track down,‚ÄĚ Hess said.
The Washington Post reported that, besides Novak, at least six other journalists received the information about Wilson‚Äôs wife, and a senior administration official told the paper that two White House officials leaked the story.
Wilson himself said several reporters informed him that White House officials had knowledge of the leak.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the White House staff would fully cooperate with the Justice Department, but denied Rove had anything to do with the leak.
‚ÄúHe was not involved, and that allegation is not true in terms of leaking classified information, nor would he condone it,‚ÄĚ McClellan said.
Cheney's or Rice's people
While it is still too early to tell whether the White House was involved, fingers are starting to point in the direction of Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
The VP‚Äôs office asked the CIA in early 2002 to look into the veracity of US intelligence on Iraq‚Äôs uranium dealings in Africa, a request that led the agency to send Wilson to Niger.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs as likely as anything that [the leak] came from the VP‚Äôs office as from anywhere else in the White House,‚ÄĚ Farrar said.
The White House official said there was no information to suggest that anyone on the Vice President‚Äôs staff played a role in the leak.
Another possible scenario is that someone on the National Security Council (NSC), headed by Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, leaked the story as a means of exacting revenge against Wilson for publicly stating that the administration‚Äôs intelligence claims were false, he said.
Condoleezza Rice pleads ignorance of the affair
‚ÄúIt would not surprise me that these sources may not have been on the political side of the White House, but may have been on the national security side and had an axe to grind,‚ÄĚ he said.
NSC staff members would have more access to classified intelligence than Bush aides working in the West Wing, he said.
The use of classified intelligence for political reasons is at the heart of the current controversy, Gibney said.
‚ÄúI think for me what is disturbing about the scandal is that it shows a continuing reckless, self-serving disregard for the handling of classified material by the Bush administration,‚ÄĚ he said.
For an administration that prides itself on having a leak-proof public image, the notion that one of its own officials, whether inside or outside of the White House, disclosed sensitive information to the media is troubling to President Bush.
Bush's tight ship has sprung several leaks
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs just too many leaks, and if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,‚ÄĚ Bush said on Tuesday during a news conference in Chicago. ‚ÄúIf the person violated the law, the person will be taken care of. And I welcome the investigation.‚ÄĚ
Senior White House officials could surely find classified material on undercover agents if they went looking for it, said Jennifer Kibbe, an expert in covert action at the Brookings Institution.
‚ÄúParticularly, if it is someone at the level about which the allegations are being made, I think that they could have had access to the information and wouldn‚Äôt have needed someone at CIA to get it,‚ÄĚ Kibbe said.
Wilson said during an interview with Aljazeera.net in mid-August that the leak was less about discrediting him or his wife, and more about sending a message that any future whistleblowers would face the wrath of the administration.
‚ÄúThe idea that the administration, at the political level, would go after my wife or sort of drag her name into this, by her maiden name, was clearly designed to keep others from stepping forward,‚ÄĚ Wilson said.
Although it is still unclear whether Wilson‚Äôs wife was working in a covert capacity or was merely an analyst for the CIA, those with knowledge of the intelligence business say she will never be able to work undercover in the future.
‚ÄúEspecially for this person (Wilson's wife), it‚Äôs over‚ÄĚ
Vice president of external affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
‚ÄúEspecially for this person, it‚Äôs over,‚ÄĚ Farrar said.
The reputation of the CIA itself may be damaged by the publicity surrounding the leak, something that could harm its ability to conduct future intelligence-gathering operations involving foreign contacts, Kibbe said.
‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre one of those foreign sources who is considering contacting the CIA, are you going to think twice about contacting the CIA? Sure,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúIf there‚Äôs a risk that this kind of information will be disclosed, that‚Äôs huge.‚ÄĚ
That could be one of the reasons why the CIA made sure its request for an investigation was picked up by the media, Farrar said.
‚ÄúThe reality is that people at the agency feel that they‚Äôre whip-sawed back and forth,‚ÄĚ he said.
Whether or not Bush will take a sustained political hit from the investigation depends on how forthcoming the White House is with information in the weeks ahead, political analysts say.
If the administration is seen to be actively cooperating with investigators, it could whether the storm relatively unscathed, Hess said.
‚ÄúIf they have a very tough investigation and move very quickly, it can be dealt with,‚ÄĚ he said.