Yes, Dems, There is a Grinch
In 1897, the New York Sun passed into the realm of journalism immortality when its editorial board assured eight year old Virginia O'Hanlon that Santa Claus – or at least the spirit of Santa Claus – really existed despite the taunts of her skeptical friends. That paper eventually folded and was merged with another.
But yesterday its namesake was the first to break a story to cheer the hearts of Democrats everywhere put down by neocon taunts that they were "disloyal" or "just didn't get it." The Sun – and now every news organization – confirmed that the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, at least from the Dem's perspective, was real too.
According to papers filed by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the indicted former Chief of Staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, testified to a grand jury that the leak which ultimately outed CIA operative Valerie Plame began when Cheney told him to pass on classified information to the press and that it was President Bush who authorized the disclosure.
Libby testified the Vice-President advised him, "the President specifically had authorized [him] to disclose certain information in the National Intelligence Estimate" and that such an authorization was "unique in his recollection" of government service. The authorization led to a July 2003 conversation between Libby and New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
Democrats were understandably jubilant over the publication of this little pearl of intelligence.
"Now we know President Bush authorized the leaking of classified information for political gain," exulted Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. "The fact that the President . . . put interests of his political Party ahead of America's security shows that he can no longer be trusted to keep America safe."
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, defeated by Bush in the 2004 Presidential election, noted the President "said he'd fire whoever leaked classified information, and now we know the President himself authorized it. [His] search for the leaker needs to go no further than a mirror."
Kerry may have been referring to remarks made by Bush in an address to the University of Chicago in September 2003. The President declared, "Let me just say something about leaks in Washington. There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington . There's leaks at the Executive Branch; there's leaks in the Legislative Branch. There's just too many leaks. And if there is a leak out of my Administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of." [my emphasis]
So is this really the straw that will break the GOP elephant's back or just a strawman? There is definitely smoke here but does it point toward an out-of-control fire, a previously hidden smoking gun, or simply mirrors?
The answer is a little bit of all these things. This is definitely a bitter blow for a Republican Party already in disarray and a potent political weapon for Democrats in a mid-term election year. However, those who think this marks the beginning of the end for Bush had better pause whetting those impeachment knives in order to think again.
First of all, the only proof of this authorization is the testimony of Libby and his credibility is not the best. He is charged with five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to the FBI. He obviously wants to clear or mitigate his culpability. Fitzgerald has characterized Libby's frequent requests for voluminous amount of information as "a vast fishing expedition."
Even if we assume that Libby's testimony sticks and/or is corroborated, the President is not in nearly such a perilous legal position as he might appear at first glance. There is nothing in Libby's testimony to suggest he was specifically authorized to disclose Valerie Plame's CIA identity in order to discredit her husband, former ambassador and Bush Administration critic Joseph Wilson.
It was the possible endangerment of an undercover CIA operative – which was really never a likely outcome in this instance – that most enraged public opinion over the leak. On the other hand, it does single out Vice-President Cheney as suggesting that Plame could be used to discredit Wilson.
What Bush/Cheney definitely did authorize Libby to show Miller, per Libby, was the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This was to counter claims by Wilson that Iraq's WMD threat was small and the Administration was twisting intelligence to suit its purposes.
The problem here is that President's have long enjoyed the authority to declassify materials at their discretion and President Bush has extended that authority to Vice-President Cheney by Executive Order. Doubtless that is what Bush will say he did with the NIE data if forced to respond to Libby's accusations. On the other hand, Libby testified it was his understanding that only Bush, Cheney, and himself knew of the NIE data's declassification.
The real threat to Bush and the Republican Party from this revelation comes from its damage to public perception of the President as someone who might be extreme in his views but always trustworthy and a straight shooter. This is because his remarks at the University of Chicago were hardly the first or only time the President went on the record disparaging leaks. The Bush Administration is almost trademarked by its love of secrecy and disdain for those who break ranks.
In October 2001, less than a month after the September 11 attacks, the President avowed, "We can't have leaks of classified information. It's not in our nation's interest." A month after Chicago, the President said in an October 2003 White House Press Conference, "I'd like to know if somebody in my White House did leak sensitive information. As you know, I've been outspoken on leaks. And whether they happened in the White House, or happened in the administration, or happened on Capitol Hill, it is a – they can be very damaging."
At Chicago, the President had gone on to say, "If anybody has got any information inside our Administration or outside our Administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true and get on about the business. Even as recently as December 2005 he continued referring to the Plame leak as "a shameful act" that was "helping the enemy."
In the aftermath of the 2004 elections, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas ebulliently maintained, "The Republican Party is a permanent majority for the future of this country." This week, a deeply dispirited DeLay admitted to reporters, "[Republicans] don't have an agreed agenda" and suggested the policy failures and unfortunately revelations of the past year had "taken its toll."
The most recent Associated Press–Ipsos poll shows President Bush's approval rating at a new all-time low of only thirty-six percent. The public now favors Democrats over Republicans by a sixteen point margin when asked which Party should control Congress. On the subject the GOP has dominated ever since September 11, respondents are now deadlocked at forty-one percent each over which Party they trust most to protect the country.
Even among Republicans, Bush's approval rating is down twelve points from a year ago and six out of ten Republicans said they disapproved of the GOP-led Congress. "These numbers are scary. We've lost every advantage we've ever had," GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said. "The good news is Democrats don't have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one."
That is the problem Republicans face from Libby's testimony. It provides Democrats with a high-profile topic that they can exploit for the next seven months. Nor are they necessarily doomed to make a nuisance of themselves out of a single, isolated incident. Back in February, Jonathan Alter chronicled in Newsweek another less audacious instance in which President Bush leaked information for political purposes.
On the same day his CIA Chief, Porter Gross, was ruing over intelligence leaks on the New York Times editorial pages – "We are at risk of losing a key battle. The battle to protect our classification system." – Bush was using a speech to the National Guard Association to disclose details of a 2002 "shoe bomb" plot to blow up the U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building in Los Angeles. The plot had been previously revealed in general but the White House arranged for the Administration's top counter-terrorism adviser, Frances Townsend, to provide reporters with explicit and specific details.
While I tend to doubt the President will be seriously punished for his actions, even if they are proven true, I can see the scythe of doom reaching up as high as the Vice-President's office if Libby's assertions gain street cred with the public. Cheney could be on the "taking" end of a bullet this time by claiming that in his zeal to use Plame to discredit Wilson – which everybody already suspects him of anyway – he lied to Libby about the President authorizing the action to quell the fears of a hesitant henchman.
However, this is purely speculation on my part and I say again that Democrats must be careful in not making more of this revelation – damning though it may be in its own way – than it really is. Francis P. Church may have reassured little Virginia that the spirit of Santa Claus was real and would endure forever but that did not change the fact she would receive only as many material presents as her mother's and father's incomes could afford. Likewise, Libby's testimony may rock faith in President Bush's reputation by many moderates and others. It does not so easily translate to W's head on a platter.
Still, the Grinch may have been revealed as authentic. And rather than its small heart growing three sizes this day, that may be how much Bush has just shrunk in the estimation of many of us.
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