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Don't ask, don't know

AT A TIME when President Bush ought to be doing everything he can to show that he is an engaged commander in chief, he is acting as though there is nothing he can or should do to discover and punish the officials who leaked to columnist Robert Novak the identity of the CIA's Valerie Plame Wilson. Bush's passivity in response to a political dirty trick that harms US intelligence operations and demoralizes intelligence officers is an abdication of responsibility.

Bush has left the work of locating the leakers to the Justice Department and the FBI, while he plays the role of a detached observer. This stance makes him look like a weak leader presiding over a band of unruly subordinates who feud with each other, betraying patriotic Americans like Ms. Wilson, with no fear of being brought to hand by the president.

If he wished to do so, Bush could summon the likely suspects from the vice president's office, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council to the Oval Office and tell them that, as their president, he is ordering the officials who gave away Valerie Plame's cover to confess their role and resign.

What the leakers did was not a merely technical violation of the law. By revealing her identity, the dirty tricksters in the administration sacrificed all the informants and sources who had ever, wittingly or unwittingly, given Wilson intelligence information. Perhaps even more destructive was the leakers' apparent attempt to show the CIA there is a price to pay for refusing to tailor the agency's analyses to the wishes of policy makers.

The leak seems a transparent effort to devalue the findings of Valerie Wilson's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, who had been sent by the CIA to the African nation of Niger to check out a British report that Saddam Hussein bought a large quantity of uranium ore from Niger. Agency analysts cast doubt on the allegation because Saddam already had 15 tons of uranium ore that had been inventoried by UN weapons inspectors, and, since Iraq lacked any uranium enrichment capability, the Niger story appeared dubious.

Moreover, the British report originated with Italian military intelligence, whose resources for intelligence analysis are limited. And the Italians had not made the documents available that were the basis for the British report. When those documents were finally produced for scrutiny by UN weapons inspectors and concerned intelligence agencies, they were swiftly shown to be poor forgeries.

Wilson's wife and the CIA, it seems clear, were being punished by highly placed leakers who resented the agency's resistance to having its gathering and analysis of intelligence politicized. If Bush continues refusing to root out and punish those leakers, he will undermine the nation's defense and his own claim to leadership.

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