Washington, 23 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Late last winter, as U.S. President George W. Bush was making his case for war in Iraq, Joseph Wilson was giving interviews to the news media disputing the president's argument.
Wilson was once the U.S. ambassador to Gabon. In 2002, the CIA sent him to Africa to determine the validity of a British intelligence report that the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Niger.
According to Wilson, he reported back to the CIA that there was no evidence to support the claim. Yet last January, in Bush's annual State of the Union address, the president cited that intelligence report as evidence that Hussein was a well-armed threat who must either give up his arsenal or face a U.S.-led invasion.
He says there never has been a question within the administration about who issued the leak -- only how to divert attention from it.
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Soon afterward, Wilson began speaking out about his mission to Africa. This helped fuel a worldwide outcry by those who accuse Bush of lying about his reasons for going to war: "Either the administration has some information that it has not shared with the public or yes, they were using the selective use of facts and intelligence to bolster a decision in a case that has already been made."
Last summer, syndicated columnist Robert Novak -- who has close ties to the Bush administration -- quoted an anonymous U.S. administration official as identifying Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative. Many view the disclosure as retaliation against Wilson for publicly contradicting the president.
Identifying intelligence agents is a felony under federal law, not only because it can limit intelligence-gathering efforts, but also because it puts the lives of the agent and his or her contacts in jeopardy. There was an immediate outcry over the leak, and the Justice Department promised an investigation.
In late December -- three months after the investigation was launched -- Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he was recusing himself from the inquiry, saying it would involve a probe of political colleagues. He named Patrick Fitzgerald, a federal prosecutor from the central city of Chicago, to lead the inquiry. Fitzgerald has a reputation for integrity and independence.
But details about the course of the investigation are few. Senator Charles Schumer, a leading Democratic critic of the handling of the case, this week sent a letter to the Justice Department saying the Bush administration should release details of the probe to demonstrate to the public whether officials are cooperating, as Bush has promised.
And now, 10 former CIA officers have written to several Congressional leaders urging that they conduct a separate investigation. In the letter, they said it was "shameful" to disclose Plame's identity, and that an investigation by Congress could go further than the Justice Department's by exposing how the leak happened and insisting any similar actions in the future will not be tolerated.
The letter, dated 20 January, urged Congress to send what it called "an unambiguous message that the intelligence officers tasked with collecting or analyzing intelligence must never be turned into political punching bags." It was sent to the speaker of the House of Representatives as well as to senior members of committees likely to have jurisdiction in such a probe.
But jurisdiction is questionable in this case, according to Todd Gaziano, the director of the Center for Judicial and Legal Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative private-policy research center in Washington.
Despite the standing of those requesting the Congressional investigation, Gaziano sees the effort as more than merely redundant. He tells RFE/RL that with a very few exceptions, Congressional inquiries are necessary only as a guide to drafting legislation: "As everyone in Congress ought to know, such investigations involving national security ought to be carefully done and ought to take their time unless there's some compelling reason for busybodies in Congress to know about it."
Further, Gaziano says, a probe on Capitol Hill could run afoul of the constitutional separation of powers. That requires each branch of government -- the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judiciary -- to avoid interfering with the affairs of another branch.
Gaziano says the Justice Department, which is in the executive branch, is already investigating the Wilson-Plame issue. Therefore there is no reason for Congress to get involved.
Gaziano accuses some members of Congress of harboring political motives in entertaining the idea of opening a second probe. "Congressional investigations are usually political, rarely productive," he says. "In this case, I think, political motives to try to embarrass the [Bush] administration are probably at play. This has all the appearances of political grandstanding."
Retired General Edward Atkeson -- himself a former military intelligence officer who served in Europe during the Cold War -- says he ordinarily would agree that a congressional inquiry is not necessary. But Atkeson tells RFE/RL that he detects an even greater political motive in the White House's decision to reveal Plame's identity.
Atkeson says he believes that the disclosure of Plame's position with the CIA was not merely some inadvertent comment made in the course of a interview. He says the person who gave the interview probably was acting on orders from a higher authority in the Bush administration to strike out at a political enemy.
Further, Atkeson says, there is evidence that the administration tried to stall the investigation in the hope that the furor over the disclosure eventually would die down. He says there never has been a question within the administration about who issued the leak -- only how to divert attention from it.
"They know who it is, they know now," he said. "This White House is not a team where you have a lot of independent operators. It's a very closely honed, well-directed, well-integrated organization. I don't think this was some cowboy off on his own, I think that's highly unlikely. They may make that up afterwards and fire somebody, but I don't think that's the story at all."
Given his own intelligence background, Atkeson says American law enforcement should not take the Wilson-Plame case lightly. He says it would be problematic to disclose the real occupation of a woman like Plame, who evidently was pretending to be nothing more than the socially active wife of an ambassador.
Atkeson says such a disclosure could be dangerous for both Plame and her contacts, even if the country where she is assigned does not have what he describes as a "paranoid" government: "Every country has a bunch of questions in the back of their mind all the time -- 'How did the Americans know that?' or 'Why did the Americans say no to this request?' or something like that. The identification of her as a CIA agent immediately endangers everybody she's talked to, and that's just deadly."
Atkeson says it's right for Congress to consider conducting its own inquiry, if only as a prod to keep the Justice Department investigation from dying out.