Political season has arrived. Is the president within his right to allow reporters privileged information about his own foreign policy in order for them to understand it better? It will be a difficult case to make that he is not, which is why the president's Democratic critics have to put the worst possible spin on the latest round of Scooter Libby revelations in order to hit the headlines at all.
Once again, the slenderest of scandalous threads is becoming a distraction from real issues and political fodder for the media to take up the front pages in the run-up to the November election. In spite of the findings of Special Council Patrick J. Fitzgerald that President Bush had nothing to do with the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to the media in the summer of 2003, the impression being created by the president's political opponents is that Mr. Bush himself is at the heart of a White House conspiracy against Ms. Plame and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
What Mr. Libby seems to have indicated is that Mr. Bush felt there was a need for greater understanding of his reasons to go to war in Iraq. This was at a time when Mr. Wilson was in full-throated attack against the White House, first in the New York Times in July 2003 and later on any news program that would have him.
Columnist Robert Novak may have revealed Ms. Plame's name in his column as the CIA person who initially suggested sending Mr. Wilson on his fact-finding mission to Niger in the summer of 2002 to seek out information regarding Saddam Hussein's desire to obtain uranium yellow cake. But Mr. Wilson did as much as anyone to get his wife's name out in public during his crusade against the Bush administration. As he told this writer after a joint appearance at Voice of America in the summer of 2003, he would go to any length to destroy the "neo-conservatives" in the Bush administration.
(It should also be recalled, that while Mr. Wilson's not very arduous fact-finding mission uncovered no evidence that Saddam got the yellow cake, Mr. Wilson himself admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee that it was not for want of trying.) Documents out of the grand jury suggest that Vice President Dick Cheney was the one to authorized Mr. Libby to talk to New York Times reporter Judith Miller. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that Mr. Bush himself did more than allow Mr. Cheney to divulge portions of the classified National Intelligence Estimate, focusing on Saddam's nuclear program.
Columnist E.J. Dionne, who yesterday in The Washington Post accused the president of playing a double game under the headline "All the President's Leaks," would normally have been agitating for a declassification of such important decision-making material. Yet Mr. Libby gave Mrs. Miller a scoop on national intelligence that was only 10 days later made generally available to the media. Needless to say, this disparity has gotten the rest of them up in arms.
The fact that the president is under attack is entirely in tune with the political season. As the November mid-term election comes closer, political stories that can further suppress the Republicans' or president's approval ratings will get bigger and bigger play.
In Sunday's edition of The Washington Post, the front-page story headlined "A 'Concerted Effort' to Discredit Bush Critic" appeared after the jump along with an article headlined "President May be Running Out of Time to Rebound." Well, guess why? Maybe it is because any number of scandals that are little more than political hot air that keeps being recycled. The president's purportedly clandestine surveillance program of ordinary Americans -- which in fact was an operation directed against terrorist communications -- is another case in point.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean lost no time accusing the president, "Now we know President Bush authorized the leaking of classified information for political gain. His willingness to do so demonstrates once again that the president puts his party above the security of the American people." How exactly did he do that? As pointed out by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the president "has the inherent authority to decide who should have classified information." This is why in any legal sense the attacks on the president have nowhere to go. But that doesn't mean that political damage hasn't and will not be done. The election season is already in full swing.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times