It's open season on George W. Bush, and the establishment media are playing their predictable role in the row over the naming of a CIA employee by a conservative columnist in July.
In case you've only now returned from a visit overseas, the media and many Democrats are positively lathered about the identity of a CIA employee that was revealed by syndicated columnist Robert Novak July 14.
The CIA employee in question is the wife of former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, who was dispatched to Niger last year to check out allegations of Saddam Hussein trying to buy uranium.
It was a report by Wilson that was used by some to discount other intelligence reports about Saddam's alleged attempts to buy the guts of nuclear weaponry, which was noted in a 16-word passage in Bush's State of the Union address and has become a rallying cry for those who wish to see someone other than Bush occupy the White House.
Novak's column, which appeared on CNSNews.com July 14, noted, "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger."
Over the weekend, this two-and-a-half-month-old story with a throw-away line about the wife of a former U.S. diplomat exploded into one of great intrigue, allegations of dirty tricks by the White House, endangering the lives of intelligence assets, naked politics to silence critics, even assertions that this could be worse than Richard Nixon's Watergate.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) isn't satisfied that John Ashcroft's Justice Department has launched an inquiry into the matter, and was quoted by Agence France Presse Tuesday as saying, "This is a very serious national security matter where there is a clear conflict of interest for the attorney general because it could involve high-level White House officials."
Similarly, the Associated Press quoted Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark as saying, "It's wrong, it's shady, it's cheap."
But neither of those reports - and relatively few others - quoted Novak himself, who shed considerable light on the story Sept. 29 during his Crossfire show on CNN.
"Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this," said Novak. "In July, I was interviewing a senior administration official on Ambassador Wilson's report when he told me the trip was inspired by his wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction. Another senior official told me the same thing."
According to Novak's account of learning that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, "When I called the CIA in July, they confirmed Mrs. Wilson's involvement in a mission for her husband on a secondary basis, who is - he is a former Clinton administration official. They asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else."
As for whether divulging Mrs. Wilson's name would carry with it any dark or dangerous risks, Novak said: "According to a confidential source at the CIA, Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative, and not in charge of undercover operatives."
Let's recap: Novak was presumably the first to mention the link between the CIA and Mrs. Wilson after the CIA confirmed information he learned when he contacted some people in the administration.
And let's be clear about another thing - "the administration" includes thousands and thousands of people working for all departments in the Executive Branch, including more than a few Bill Clinton cronies the Bush White House didn't have the good sense to fire on January 20, 2001.
There is nothing here about a White House leak. As for Schumer's claims of "a very serious national security matter," it's doubtful the CIA would have blown the cover of one of its own people. Ditto on the "shady" and "cheap" assertions of Clark.
But don't expect the facts to get in the way 13 months ahead of the 2004 elections. Democrats will continue to hammer away on the matter. Some say there's blood in the water on this, but it's nothing more than tawdry political opportunism.
And it will become tawdrier. When the Justice Department inquiry concludes that what Novak said Sept. 29 is correct, Schumer, Clark or other Democrat acolytes will say it only proves Ashcroft can't do his job; that an independent counsel is necessary to investigate the president and his White House.
There's no telling where the Justice Department investigation will go. This entire episode may be completely innocuous; it may reveal an individual with poor judgment; it may reveal a nasty punk who should be fired and jailed. My money is on innocuous.
Short of knowing, much of today's brouhaha is, as Robert Novak said Sept. 29, "pure Bush-bashing."
Scott Hogenson is executive editor of CNSNews.com.