The walls haven't collapsed around George W. Bush, but the pillars are buckling, the floorboards are rattling, the inspectors are probing, and it doesn't look good.
In the White House and the Pentagon, senior officials face the prospect of criminal charges. The vice president is accused of malfeasance, at best. A key erstwhile ally in the war on terrorism has apparently turned against us in an act of criminal perfidy. And now the nation's spymaster has turned in his cloak—it's not yet clear whether he jumped or got pushed; either way, Bush's risk-rating has just soared.
George Tenet's departure as CIA director—a post he's held for nearly seven years—longer than anyone since Allen Dulles ran the agency under President Eisenhower—marks but the latest shock. One can imagine many times when Tenet might reasonably have been fired, beginning six years ago with his failure to detect warning signs of India's nuclear test and proceeding with his failure to penetrate al-Qaida, his failure to track the 9/11 hijackers, and his mistaken estimates on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (a "slam dunk" case, he assured President Bush). Tenet wasn't entirely to blame in each instance, but someone usually takes the rap for such catastrophic blunders, and the CIA director is a more solid choice than most—except, it has seemed, in the Bush administration, which not only issues no raps but admits no blame.
The question, then, is not, "Why is Tenet leaving?" but, "Why now?" It may take several rounds of press leaks before we know the answer. (Bush's citation of "personal reasons" is the traditional boilerplate.) Whatever the real reason, a team player is now a free agent, and those left on the bench must be nervous about that. All presidents learn quickly that spy chiefs are dangerous creatures if let loose or treated harshly. John F. Kennedy was held in constant check by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's knowledge of his sexual peccadilloes. Lyndon B. Johnson kept Hoover on, telling a friend, "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in." No FBI or CIA director has wielded his leverage as brashly as Hoover did; still, the shrewd ones keep the crowbar in the closet, and Tenet couldn't have lasted as long as he did—through the Clinton and Bush presidencies—if he weren't shrewd.
So, what would happen if the 9/11 commission or any of the other boards of inquiry dealing with the various intelligence scandals were to re-call Private Citizen Tenet to testify? Would he suddenly remember meetings and conversations that had earlier slipped his mind? Years ago, Tenet worked as a staff member for Sen. John Heinz, whose widow is now married to John Kerry. Do they keep in touch? (Just asking.)
It's doubtful that Tenet's resignation has anything to do with the troubles now surrounding Ahmad Chalabi. True, Chalabi and one of his last loyalists, Richard Perle, accuse Tenet of spreading the recent accusations. And Tenet has long distrusted Chalabi, for many legitimate reasons. Still, nearly all the power centers have now backed away from Chalabi, the Iraqi exile whose deceptions helped the Bush administration build a case for war. The National Security Council disavowed him last April. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, with whom he routinely huddled, now says Chalabi wasn't so influential after all. Bush himself, who once boasted of their many powwows, now dismisses Chalabi as someone he might have met on a rope line once or twice.
The backpedaling is fierce because Chalabi is in huge trouble and every senior U.S. official who consorted with him is under deep suspicion. According to news stories, Chalabi told the Baghdad station chief for Iran's intelligence ministry that the Americans had broken the ministry's codes and were intercepting all its communications.
If the stories are true, Chalabi could be charged with espionage, a crime that carries a sentence of life in prison or—under certain circumstances—the death penalty. One of those circumstances is if the accused has passed along "communications intelligence or cryptographic information"—in other words, any secrets pertaining to intercepts.
Chalabi probably won't face the ultimate punishment. In none of the 10 espionage cases brought to trial over the past decade have U.S. prosecutors so much as sought the death penalty. But the fact that Chalabi is a British citizen does not exempt him from the second-most severe punishment under this particular American law.
As for the U.S. official who reportedly told Chalabi about the intercept, the feds wrote a special law to handle his type. Within the statute dealing with the "disclosure of classified information," there is a separate clause for those who leak—not just to foreign powers but to any "unauthorized person"—information "concerning the communications intelligence activities of the United States." Those found guilty are heavily fined and sentenced to prison for up to 10 years.
The FBI's counterintelligence division, the CIA, the NSA, the Justice Department—the entire U.S. national-security machine—can be expected to come down very hard on this case, no matter how high it takes them. Communications intercepts are something like the crown jewels. Those in charge of guarding the jewels do not—cannot—tolerate or wrist-slap a breach.
For this same reason, it is no surprise that the investigation into the Valerie Plame affair is gaining traction. A grand jury has apparently been at work for some time, investigating who might have told reporters that Plame was an undercover CIA agent. It was revealed yesterday that President Bush himself has sought the services of an outside lawyer in case he is called to testify. The widespread suspicion is that a White House operative exposed Plame in order to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who publicly revealed that Bush (or those around him) blatantly lied in claiming, in the lead up to war, that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Niger. Exposing an undercover agent is not just a felony, it's one of the most reckless crimes that anyone armed with a security clearance could commit. Again, the guardians of the crown jewels will not hesitate to lock up the culprit for as long as the book allows. (Or, if they do let the guilty party slip away, expect dozens of the guardians to resign in protest. Also expect the full roster of remaining undercover spies to come in from the cold.)
Another hit on the White House this week comes from Time, which unearthed a Pentagon e-mail message indicating that Vice President Dick Cheney played a role in arranging for Halliburton to win the multibillion-dollar, no-bid contracts for construction and logistics in post-Saddam Iraq. Cheney, of course, had been CEO of Halliburton before Bush chose him as his running mate, a connection that raised eyebrows when his former company started profiting so grandly from the occupation. The e-mail is the first tangible sign of a direct Cheney link. In any event, such blatant political interference in the awarding of a large military contract is, at very least, a violation of Pentagon procurement regulations.
And let us not forget the Abu Ghraib scandal, which remains the subject of a half-dozen panels probing up and down the chain of command. This may be the most remarkable sign of the scandal-strewn depths—that even Abu Ghraib can be buried in the rubble.
Thanks to Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News, for directing me to the pertinent statutes on communications intelligence.