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Betrayal under Bush

LATE MONDAY, as calls for action were growing louder, the Justice Department decided to conduct a full criminal investigation of the disgraceful and dangerous outing by the Bush administration of one of its own CIA agents. It is not enough. This is a case that clearly calls for the appointment of an independent counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a former client of the White House political mastermind Karl Rove, should acknowledge the obvious and name a special prosecutor of unquestionable independence and integrity.

When a chorus of Democratic voices, including both minority leaders in Congress and most of the presidential candidates, urged that step yesterday, some Republicans responded that the move was political. The House Domocratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, called that response "pathetic."

The important point is that it is illegal to reveal the identity of undercover intelligence officers, as members of the administration seem to have done. The columnist Robert Novak reported on July 14 that "two senior administration officials" had told him that the wife of former US ambassador Joseph Wilson was an operative of the CIA. The column ran eight days after Wilson had written an op-ed article in The New York Times suggesting that the Bush administration had exaggerated the nuclear threat from Iraq.

Whether it was intended as payback, or as a warning to others who might question administration policies in public, or had some other motive, the naming of an undercover agent is a reprehensible, dangerous, and disloyal crime. Former President George H. W. Bush said in 1999: "I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors." Even if the senior Bush was talking about people who give the names of agents directly to enemies, the point is the same: The exposure of one agent threatens intelligence operations everywhere. It is crime against national security.

No specific evidence links Rove to this incident, but the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, convinced no one when he called the mention of Rove as a possible source "ridiculous." Rove has a long history of political dirty tricks.

If Novak's report and other accounts are right, at least two administration officials were spreading this story, possibly to half a dozen news outlets. This means there may have been not one rogue leaker but a strategy conceived and carried out at some level of the administration.

Only a truly independent investigation can gain public confidence that it will not settle for flimsy explanations, or even a low-level scapegoat, but will unearth the full story of this sordid episode.

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