The poverty of our current scandal.
Writing to a friend in 1954, P.G. Wodehouse commented:
Are you following the McCarthy business? If so, can you tell me what it's all about? "You dined with Mr. X on Friday the tenth?" "Yes, sir." (Keenly) "What did you eat?" "A chocolate nut sundae, sir." (Sensation) It's like Bardell vs Pickwick.
Wodehouse of course was only affecting ignorance and making light of a ludicrously pompous and slightly sinister proceeding. But he was essentially correct in his lampooning of the McCarthy hearings, since even the most convinced anti-communist would not learn anything from the spectacle that he did not already know, and since the show trials managed to go on without producing either any evidence of any crime, or any evidence of any perpetrator, or any evidence of any victim.
It is the entire absence of the above three elements that makes the hunt for Karl Rove (who was once so confidently confused with I. Lewis Libby) so utterly Snark-like. In fact, in his column of July 17, Frank Rich was compelled to concede that the whole thing is absolutely nothing in itself, but is rather a sideshow to a much larger event: the deception of the Bush-Cheney administration in preparing an intervention in Iraq. I want to return to this, but one must first winnow out some other chaff and nonsense.
First, the most exploded figure in the entire argument is Joseph Wilson. This is for three reasons. He claimed, in his own book, that his wife had nothing to do with his brief and inconclusive visit to Niger. "Valerie had nothing to do with the matter," he wrote. "She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip." There isn't enough wiggle room in those two definitive statements to make either of them congruent with a memo written by Valerie Wilson (or Valerie Plame, if you prefer) to a deputy chief in the CIA's directorate of operations. In this memo, in her wifely way, she announced that her husband would be ideal for the mission since he had "good relations with both the Prime Minister and the former Minister of Mines (of Niger), not to mention lots of French contacts." If you want to read the original, turn to the Senate committee's published report on the many "intelligence failures" that we have suffered recently. I want to return to those, too.
Speaking to the Washington Post about the CIA's documents on the Niger connection, Wilson made the further claim that "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong." Again according to the Senate report, these papers were not in CIA hands until eight months after Wilson made his trip. He has since admitted to the same newspaper that he may have "misspoken" about this.
The third bogus element in Wilson's boastful story is the claim that Niger's "yellowcake" uranium was never a subject of any interest to Saddam Hussein's agents. The British intelligence report on this, which does not lack criticism of the Blair government, finds the Niger connection to be among the most credible of the assertions made about Saddam's double-dealing. If you care to consult the Financial Times of June 28, 2004, and see the front-page report by its national security correspondent Mark Huband, you will be able to review the evidence that Niger—with whose ministers Mr. Wilson had such "good relations"—was trying to deal in yellowcake with North Korea and Libya as well as Iraq and Iran. This evidence is by no means refuted or contradicted by a forged or faked Italian document saying the same thing. It was a useful axiom of the late I.F. Stone that few people are so foolish as to counterfeit a bankrupt currency.
Thus, and to begin with, Joseph Wilson comes before us as a man whose word is effectively worthless. What do you do, if you work for the Bush administration, when a man of such quality is being lionized by an anti-war press? Well, you can fold your tent and let them print the legend. Or you can say that the word of a mediocre political malcontent who is at a loose end, and who is picking up side work from a wife who works at the anti-regime-change CIA, may not be as "objective" as it looks. I dare say that more than one supporter of regime change took this option. I would certainly have done so as a reporter if I had known.
OK, then, how do the opponents of regime change in Iraq make my last sentence into a statement of criminal intent and national-security endangerment? By citing the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. This law, which is one of the most repressive and absurd pieces of legislation on our statute book, was a panicky attempt by the right to silence whistle-blowers at the CIA. In a rough effort to make it congruent with freedom of information and the First Amendment (after all, the United States managed to get through the Second World War and most of the Cold War without such a law), it sets a fairly high bar. You must knowingly wish to expose the cover of a CIA officer who you understand may be harmed as a result. It seems quite clear that nobody has broken even that arbitrary element of this silly law.
But the coverage of this non-storm in an un-teacup has gone far beyond the fantasy of a Rovean hidden hand. Supposedly responsible journalists are now writing as if there was never any problem with Saddam's attempt to acquire yellowcake (or his regime's now-proven concealment of a nuclear centrifuge, or his regime's now-proven attempt to buy long-range missiles off the shelf from North Korea as late as March 2003). In the same way, the carefully phrased yet indistinct statement of the 9/11 Commission that Saddam had no proven "operational" relationship with al-Qaida has mutated lazily into the belief that there were no contacts or exchanges at all, which the commission by no means asserts and which in any case by no means possesses the merit of being true. The CIA got everything wrong before 9/11, and thereafter. It was conditioned by its own culture to see no evil. It regularly leaked—see any of Bob Woodward's narratives—against the administration. Now it, and its partisans and publicity-famished husband-and-wife teams, want to imprison or depose people who leak back at it. No, thanks. Many journalists are rightly appalled at Time magazine's collusion with a prosecutor who has proved no crime and identified no victim. Far worse is the willingness of the New York Times to accept the demented premise of a prosecutor who has put one of its own writers behind bars.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Joseph Wilson and Sen. Charles Schumer by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.