If you meet the Special Counsel
    on the Yellowcake Road,
    no-bill him.

No, Patrick Fitzgerald isn’t going to indict the Sixteen Words or the Project for a New American Century or Ahmed Chalabi. He’s going to indict whoever outed Valerie Plame Wilson and whoever helped cover it up.

The opening of a webpage for Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation has provoked lots of speculation, even though Fitzgerald’s spokesman said no significance should be read into it.

Surely, we hear, Fitzgerald wouldn’t open up a website just so he could post a “never mind” notice.

Well, actually, he might. Unless Fitzgerald has his case already in the can — possible, but not certain — he’s trying to get some potential defendants to plead guilty and testify against other potential defendants. Their incentive to do so depends entirely on their belief that Fitzgerald will indict them if they don’t cooperate. Anything Fitzgerald can do to make indictments seem more likely rather than less likely therefore improves his bargaining position.

Putting up a page on the DoJ server is dramatic and cheap, and doesn’t in fact commit him to anything at all.

On the other hand, his selection of documents does seem significant. As against the GOP spin that he was appointed to look into violations of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, he has the original letter giving him “all the authority of the Attorney General with respect to the Department’s investigation into the alleged unauthorized disclosure of a CIA employee’s identity” and a second letter written shortly thereafter specifying that his authority extends to any criminal attempt to frustrate that investigation.

But note that none of the documents on the site gives Fitzgerald any authority over the wider question of who made up and peddled the Nigerian yellowcake story, or the still wider question about how the administration hyped the threat of an Iraqi nuclear weapons acquisition program as part of its sales pitch for the war.

Apparently Frank Rich suggested on Meet the Press today that the case might go in that direction. Ain’t gonna happen. Surely if Fitzgerald were moving that way, he would have asked for authority to do so, and would have added that request and the response to it to his webpage.

So if you’re holding your breath anticipating that Fitzgerald is going to walk down the Yellowcake Road, exhale. He’s going to charge people with exposing Valerie Plame Wilson’s connection to the CIA and with trying to cover up that act of exposure, or he’s going to charge the cover-up but not the original act, or (least likely in my view) he’s going to fold up his tent and go home.

Update A reader points me to this Josh Marshall post linking to a UPI story by Martin Walker reporting that “Fitzgerald’s team of investigators has sought and obtained documentation on the forgeries from the Italian government” and inferring from that fact that “the CIA leak inquiry that threatens senior White House aides has now widened to include the forgery of documents on African uranium that started the investigation.” Josh vouches for Walker’s credibility, and I have no reason to doubt him.

But note that the inference doesn’t follow from the fact, and is contradicted by Fitzgerald’s terms of reference. Fitzgerald may well want to bring in the Yellowcake Road story to show motive for whatever crimes he charges, but the charges themselves will have to be limited to blowing Plame’s cover and covering it up.

Update Kevin Drum has a theory about the motivation for the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson, and that theory seems to fit the facts: the W.H.I.G. thought that Joseph Wilson had proof that the Yellowcake Road documents were forgeries before the 2003 State of the Union address. I still doubt that Fitzgerald has the authority to bring charges about the forgery, as opposed to the outing.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com