'Slime and Defend'

SYNOPSIS: As Josh Marshall says, even "If Wilson were a rabid political attack dog," it would not "change the seriousness of blowing his wife's cover at the CIA to get back at him." Somebody in Bush's White House has endangered the lives of CIA agents and violated our national security by exposing Valerie Plame as a covert operative. Bush knew this eleven weeks ago, but did nothing as long as the cowed Weashington press corps didn't go after him. Now that they are, Bush is failing to take action to identify the leaker and bring him to justice, and allowing his Republican apparatchiks to slime Joseph Wilson to make the scandal go away.

On July 14, Robert Novak published the now-famous column in which he identified Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, as a C.I.A. "operative on weapons of mass destruction," and said "two senior administration officials" had told him that she was responsible for her husband's mission to Niger. On that mission, Mr. Wilson concluded correctly that reports of Iraqi efforts to buy uranium were bogus.

An outraged President Bush immediately demanded the names of those responsible for exposing Ms. Plame. He repeated his father's statement that "those who betray the trust by exposing the names of our sources" are "the most insidious of traitors." There are limits to politics, Mr. Bush declared; Mr. Wilson's decision to go public about his mission had embarrassed him, but that was no excuse for actions that were both felonious and unpatriotic.

Everything in the previous paragraph is, of course, false. It's what should have happened, but didn't. Mr. Bush took no action after the Novak column. Before we get bogged down in the details which is what the administration hopes will happen let's be clear: we already know what the president knew, and when he knew it. Mr. Bush knew, 11 weeks ago, that some of his senior aides had done something utterly inexcusable. But as long as the media were willing to let the story lie which, with a few honorable exceptions, like David Corn at The Nation and Knut Royce and Timothy Phelps at Newsday, they were he didn't think this outrage required any action.

And now that the C.I.A. has demanded a Justice Department inquiry, the White House's strategy isn't just to stonewall, Nixon-style; as one Republican Congressional aide told The New York Times, it will "slime and defend."

The right-wing media slime machine, which tries to assassinate the character of anyone who opposes the right's goals hey, I know all about it has already swung into action. For example, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page calls Mr. Wilson an "open opponent of the U.S. war on terror." We've grown accustomed to this sort of slur and they accuse liberals of lacking civility? but let's take a minute to walk through it.

Mr. Wilson never opposed the "war on terror" he opposed the war in Iraq precisely because it had no obvious relevance to the campaign against terror. He feared that invading a country with no role in 9/11, and no meaningful Al Qaeda links, would divert resources from the pursuit of those who actually attacked America. Many patriots in the military and the intelligence community agreed with him then; even more agree now.

Unlike the self-described patriots now running America, Mr. Wilson has taken personal risks for the sake of his country. In the months before the first gulf war, he stayed on in Baghdad, helping to rescue hundreds of Americans who might otherwise have been held as hostages. The first President Bush lauded him as a "truly inspiring diplomat" who exhibited "courageous leadership."

In any case, Mr. Wilson's views and character are irrelevant. Someone high in the administration committed a felony and, in the view of the elder Mr. Bush, treason. End of story.

The hypocrisy here is breathtaking. Republicans have repeatedly impugned their opponents' patriotism. Last year Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, said Democrats "don't want to protect the American people. . . . They will do anything, spend all the time and resources they can, to avoid confronting evil."

But the true test of patriotism isn't whether you are willing to wave the flag, or agree with whatever the president says. It's whether you are willing to take risks and make sacrifices, including political sacrifices, for the sake of your country. This episode is a test for Mr. Bush and his inner circle: a true patriot wouldn't hesitate about doing the right thing in the Plame affair, whatever the political costs.

Mr. Bush is failing that test.

Correction: Many people, including Paul Bremer in recent testimony and myself in my Sept. 30 column, have linked Churchill's remark about the "most unsordid act" to the Marshall Plan. In fact, Churchill was referring to an earlier program, Lend-Lease. But one suspects that he wouldn't have minded the confusion.

Originally published in The New York Times, 10.3.03