The painfully tedious chronology of the Valerie Plame affair has been boring its followers to tears ever since it first made headlines in 2003. With countless side plots and a background-intensive storyline, the 22-month probe into the White House’s role in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame may be one of the least appreciated and scarcely understood criminal investigations ever to grace the front page of a national newspaper.

Sarah Royce

I’d try to explain it myself, but they only give me this little box. So for the sake of convenience, it’s sufficient to know that a senior White House official – vice presidential aide Scooter Libby – has been indicted for lying under oath, and an even higher-ranking White House Official – the vice president A– is still treading water.

In a hard-hitting Sunday column, New York Times heavyweight David Brooks doused cold water on the hysteria that’s consumed the investigation, ridiculing conspiracy claims advanced by Democrats and accusing the party of being paranoid and “compulsively overheated” at first wind of a political scandal.

Brooks properly points out that Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel heading the investigation, found only enough evidence to charge Libby and little to shore up allegations of a broader conspiracy or coordinated cover-up. “One of the president’s top advisers is indicted on serious charges,” Brooks rumbles, “Why are they incapable of leaving it at that?”

It’s always refreshing to see a pundit dedicate margin space to deflating (instead of propagating) media alarmism, especially when just inches away, Times columnist and self-stylized muckraker Frank Rich is busy unveiling his signature scandal of the week.

Dating back to the Nixon years, Rich’s storied career as a journalist/film critic has left him hopelessly jaded; trapped in an ongoing political stage show that stars him as Bob Woodward and President Bush as a latter-day Nixon. It came as no surprise that Rich opened this Sunday’s piece, “One step closer to the Big Enchilada,” with an elaborate analogy comparing the Libby indictment to the opening months of the Watergate scandal, when the country would soon “come to see that the original petty crime was merely the leading edge of thematically related but wildly disparate abuses of power – ” Rich went on to directly implicate the President, framing the Libby indictment in the wider context of a cover-up culture he claims has characterized the administration’s handling of the Iraq war.

But where Rich reaches too far, Brooks doesn’t reach far enough. He closes the lid on the indictment, stubbornly unwilling to accept the idea that someone or something bigger may be behind the leak. Given the magnitude of the issue and the general confusion surrounding it, discussing this investigation in anything but the most sober and evenhanded tone seems needlessly opportunistic. When readers need resolution most, Brooks and Rich, like too many of their partisan counterparts in the media, are busy towing the company line. Instead of peeling away the layers, they bury the facts under more spin. The truth, as the still-unfolding details will reveal, lies somewhere in between one columnist’s hyperbole and the other’s deliberately narrow reality.

Despite Rich’s finger-pointing, Fitzgerald’s investigation hasn’t come near the Oval Office, and the President has been kept at a safe distance. Nor is there any reason to believe Libby’s prosecution will double as a show trial on the administration’s candor in its pre-war intelligence gathering. But simply “leaving it at that,” to use Brooks’s words, would be just as misleading.

Any doubts that the fallout from the Libby indictment would penetrate the upper ranks of the White House were dispelled with last weekend’s news of Fitzgerald’s plans to use Libby’s prosecution as an opportunity to bring his boss, the vice president of the United States, to the witness stand.

As the point-source behind the leak, we already know Cheney sits atop this mountain of controversy; it’s now up to Fitzgerald to discover in what capacity. The prosecution can place Cheney on Air Force Two with Libby the day Plame’s identity was revealed to Time Magazine’s Matt Cooper. And as a material witness, attention will certainly be brought to Cheney’s potential motives for discrediting former diplomat and outspoken administration opponent Joseph Wilson by outing his wife.

Look for some high-profile subpoenas. Look for a showdown over the scope of executive privilege and a drawn out plea bargain. Look for the president to begin distancing himself from Cheney. And regardless of where the pundits point you, keep looking for the facts.


Singer can be reached at singers@umich.edu.

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