The Plame Scandal Intersects the Yellowcake Road

TNR online’s &c has what seems like important news that no one else, as far as I can tell, has picked up. (Thanks to an alert reader for the tip):

Whoever in the White House leaked Valerie Plame’s name probably broke out into a cold sweat when Counsel Alberto Gonzalez’s second memo on compliance with the Justice Department investigation crossed their desks yesterday. The blowback from the potentially felonious leak just got exponentially more destructive for President Bush.

Let us explain. Here are the two key paragraphs from the memo:

[F]or the time period February 1, 2002 to the present, all documents, including without limitation all electronic records, telephone records of any kind (including but not limited to any records that memorialize telephone calls having been made), correspondence, computer records, storage devices, notes, memoranda, and diary and calendar entries, that relate in any way to:

1. Former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, his trip to Niger in February 2002, and/or his wife’s purported relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency…

Now, alert readers will remember that Robert Novak published Plame’s name in his column of July 2003. The White House counsel is telling the staff to save records about Joseph Wilson (Plame’s husband, whom the leak was designed to discredit) dating back to February 2002. That is when the CIA sends Wilson to Niger, and he in turn reports back to the CIA that intelligence reports indicating an attempted uranium purchase from Iraq were highly dubious. And, you’ll further recall, that very discredited accusation made it into the president’s State of the Union address. When news of Wilson’s trip hit the front pages in July, the White House vociferously denied that anyone working there knew at the time about Wilson’s trip. As Ari Fleischer said on July 9, “It’s known now what was not known by the White House prior to the speech.” The CIA responded by saying it communicated its doubts precisely to the Oval Office–which stands to reason, since it was a question from Vice President Dick Cheney about the uranium sale that prompted Wilson’s Niger excursion in the first place.

Now this White House we-had-no-idea line may be about to fall apart. The Justice Department will be collecting all records of White House knowledge of Wilson and his trip starting in February 2002–a year before the State of the Union. (Presumably the counsel’s office wouldn’t list this very early date unless instructed by Justice.) Documents elucidating whatever the White House knew about the unreliability of the uranium claim are about to leave the West Wing. So now the issue returns to the very questions that prompted the White House smear on Wilson (and his wife) in the first place: When did the White House know about the shakiness of the claim that Iraq was seeking Nigerien uranium? Just as importantly, who knew it?

It’s obviously unclear whether any of these West Wing e-mails, telephone conversations, notes, memos, etc., dealing with Wilson’s Niger trip will be made public at the investigation’s close. But reporters should be pressing DoJ to learn as much about them as possible. In the meantime, we suppose we’ll have to rely on, well, leaks.

The loss of those two Senate seats is looking more disastrous with every passing day. Can you imagine the hearings that might be coming out of this if there were someone to hold them? On the other hand, holding all the Senate Republicans firm behind the White House may not be that easy. Thursday’s NY Times lists four the White House is nervous about: McCain, Lugar, Hagel, and Warner. Snow, Collins, Chafee, and Specter also might bear watching. That gives the Democrats hope.

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: