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This time, it’s the crime 

When Watergate was etched into the public consciousness — the moment when America lost its political innocence and after which elected leaders could no longer be fully trusted — the cover-up was said to be worse than the crime.

That’s because the scandal concerned a “third-rate” break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices. As bad as it was that President Nixon and his aides sanctioned the criminal activity and then obstructed the investigation into it, the offense itself amounted to no more than a petty and sophomoric stunt.

Same goes with President Clinton’s adulterous liaison with a White House intern. It was an indefensible act but not one that related to his official duties or even had the potential to cause serious harm. Clinton was impeached because he lied about what happened.

Against this background, the transgressions of the current Bush administration are something very different. For while it is apparent that a cover-up was attempted, the offenses themselves were far more consequential.

We know that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political advisor, face indictment for leaking to reporters Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA officer.

Federal law prohibits government officials from knowingly disclosing the identity of intelligence operatives. And it’s difficult to argue with what former President George H.W. Bush said in a 1999 speech at CIA headquarters: “I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the names of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors.”

Most accounts portray Libby and Rove as motivated by a desire to discredit Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, IV, who publicly challenged President Bush’s assertion that Saddam Hussein tried to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger. But they likely had another, more nefarious, intention that had implications for more than just Wilson and Plame.

Gene Lyons came closest to the heart of the matter when in his Oct. 19 column he mentioned the dispute between Bush political appointees at the Pentagon and career analysts at the CIA over the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

It wasn’t just the Pentagon, though. According to Seymour Hersh’s article in the most recent edition of The New Yorker magazine, Cheney himself was engaged in “a year-long tug-of-war” with CIA analysts, and he visited their headquarters several times to strongarm them into producing the interpretations he wanted. (Remember the July 2002 internal British government memo that said “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”?)

Cheney was determined to go to war in Iraq, and he wanted the CIA to provide the justification for it. Libby, as Cheney’s top aide, was necessarily involved.

“As the campaign against Iraq intensified, a former aide to Cheney told me, the vice president’s office, run by his chief of staff, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, became increasingly secretive when it came to intelligence about Iraq’s W.M.D.s,” Hersh wrote. “ ... There was a reluctance to let the military and civilian analysts on the staff vet intelligence.”

Furthermore, it was revealed earlier this week that Libby first found out about Plame’s CIA identity from Cheney.

In this light, the leak of Plame’s name makes more sense as a way of intimidating the CIA analysts, rather than merely Wilson. After all, Wilson could do no more damage than he already had done. But other career officials at the CIA, who constituted the internal bureaucratic resistance to the Bush/Cheney war cabal, could be made to fall in line if they realized that the White House would do the unthinkable.

Unfortunately, violating federal law to ruin the livelihoods of civil servants is not exactly unthinkable for an administration as ruthless and vindictive as the current one. But it would be a crime unlike any other attempted by a president’s inner circle. Besides directly endangering loyal intelligence officers, it erodes long-established government protocols and the balance of powers. Plus the criminal act itself would be in service to an overall deception resulting in a war that has cost the lives of 2,000 American soldiers.

Over the coming months, there will be attempts to laugh off and confuse the details of the Plame leak case. But the basic facts reveal a lack of respect for government institutions and a betrayal of loyal public servants.

This time, the key players will be fortunate if they are convicted only of being liars. This time, theirs was likely a crime worth covering up.

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