Hard times in New York

The paper that regards itself as America's supreme journal of record is washing its dirty laundry in public. And a large cast of characters is getting splashed with water

That, precisely, is the mood at the White House as the special prosecutor into the CIA leak affair prepares to deliver his conclusions. Outwardly it is business as usual: "a little background noise", and " people opining" was how George Bush tried to brush the matter aside last week. In truth, all Washington is holding its breath, and there is no mistaking the anxiety beneath the presidential bravado.

Nature's hurricanes, it has been said, begin with the flutter of a butterfly's wings somewhere over tropical Africa. The political storm poised to break here began scarcely more consequentially back on 14 July 2003, in a newspaper column that revealed the identity of a covert CIA operative called Valerie Plame.

She was, it transpired, the wife of a former US ambassador named Joseph Wilson, who had just emerged as a virulent critic of the war in Iraq and, in particular, of the White House's claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking to build nuclear weapons. The deliberate leak of a CIA agent's name is a crime under US law, and Patrick Fitzgerald, a federal prosecutor from Chicago, was assigned to investigate the case, and a grand jury installed.

Mr Fitzgerald has now concluded his inquiry, and the little squall of two years ago threatens to strike Washington as a category 5 hurricane. The theory is that Ms Plame was "outed" by the Bush crowd, as an act of vengeance against her husband. It is widely predicted that Mr Fitzgerald will issue indictments against one or more very senior Bush administration officials, perhaps Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr Bush's most influential adviser, or Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who performs the same role for Vice-President Dick Cheney.

But not only is the summit of America's political establishment threatened. In his search for the truth, Mr Fitzgerald also sent Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times to jail for 85 days after she refused to reveal her sources for an article she was preparing on the Plame affair.

Among those sources, it emerged, was Mr Libby, a prime architect of the WMD case for war. As a result, America's most famous newspaper has been engulfed in a hurricane of its own. At one level, the tale is fiendishly complicated. But at heart it is very simple. The travails of the Bush White House and The New York Times stem from an issue that will not go away: why America went to war on a falsehood, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. As a profitless and ever-more unpopular conflict has dragged on, the controversy is corroding the entire presidency of George Bush.

To be sure, second terms have a habit of going awry - look no further than the Monica Lewinsky scandal for which Bill Clinton was impeached, and the Iran-Contra affair that came close to undoing Ronald Reagan. But this time the stakes are far higher. On those two occasions, America was not at war. This time it is - and Mr Fitzgerald's legal inquiries are now part and parcel of the debate over the great unanswered question of the day: why did the US invade Iraq?

Washington's national security establishment right how is a pressure cooker about to blow. Last week, Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell, publicly denounced the "cabal" between Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, that effectively shut his former boss out of the decision-making process.

Today, in the New Yorker magazine, Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser, laments this administration's rush to war against Iraq, and the "anomaly" of Mr Cheney, with whom he worked so smoothly under the first President Bush when the US drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. "I consider Dick Cheney a good friend," Mr Scowcroft ruminates. "I've known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."

The words of the 80-year-old Bush family friend illuminate both the father-and-son strains between the 41st and 43rd presidents and the eternal argument over American foreign policy between the realists and the idealists, that has found new expression over the invasion of Iraq. Mr Scowcroft is an unabashed realist. For today's idealists, read neo-conservatives.

But if the White House trembles at what may soon to be, the Times is already consumed by civil war. "This is a very traumatic time for the paper, it is very troubling, very upsetting," the Times columnist Frank Rich acknowledged yesterday. Mr Rich, to be sure, has been one of the paper's most consistently outspoken opponents of the war. But his anguish is only in part over Ms Miller's flawed reporting on Saddam's non-existent WMD; it is also for an institution that is tearing itself apart on its own printed pages.

Famously, newspapers do not wash their dirty linen in public. But in the past couple of days, the tensions at the once demure "Grey Lady" have blown that convention to smithereens. Bill Keller, the Times's executive editor, has suggested Ms Miller "misled" the newspaper, and has criticised her "entanglement" with Mr Libby. Ms Miller tartly responded by branding Mr Keller's account of events "seriously misleading".

That same day Maureen Dowd, another Times columnist, most noted for her witty skewering of the Bush family, used her allotted space on the op-ed page to berate Ms Miller under the headline "Woman of Mass Destruction". Ms Dowd ripped into her own editor and into the Times's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, saying that before turning the Miller affair into a First Amendment freedom of speech struggle, they should have "nailed her to a chair and extracted the entire story of her escapade". Then she delivers a coup de grâce to her long-time colleague: "Judy told the Times she ... intends to return to the newsroom 'hoping to cover the same thing I've always covered, the threat to country'."

But if that were to happen, Ms Dowd tells her readers, "the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands".

In fact, Ms Miller has surely already written her last story for the newspaper. But how secure is Mr Keller in the editor's chair? To be fair, the original mess did not occur on his watch. Mr Keller only took the helm in July 2003, two months after the war ended, and at a time when his first priority was to heal the wounds inflicted by the Jayson Blair affair. But not only does yesterday's broadside from the Times's ombudsman, like Ms Dowd's, take Mr Keller and Mr Sulzberger to task for leaping to Ms Miller's defence without first demanding from her the facts. The ombudsman also berates the editor for waiting so long before publishing a mea culpa for the erroneous WMD reporting.

Mr Keller concedes that by waiting until May 2004 (15 months after the invasion), he fostered the impression that the Times - despite its reputation as America's supreme newspaper of record - was more concerned to shield its reporters from embarrassment than telling the truth. "Had I lanced the WMD boil earlier," he tells the ombudsman, "our critics might have been less inclined to suspect that this time [in the Miller affair], the paper was putting the defence of the reporter above the duty to its readers."

Objective souls at the White House - assuming such a breed exists - must today have thoughts along similar lines. For the underlying link between the turmoil at the Times and the outing of Valerie Plame, between the possibility that Messrs Rove, Libby and others may end up in court and history's judgement of this Bush presidency, is none other than "the WMD boil".

Had events in Iraq conformed to the neo-cons' dreams, the stakes would not have been so high. Joe Wilson would have long been a footnote of a footnote, Mr Bush's approval ratings would be buoyant, and the Times's current contortions would be no more than a storm in a media teacup.

But Iraq has not worked out as Mr Libby, Mr Rove, Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the war-mongers naively imagined. Two-and-a-half years on, America is bogged down in a conflict that has cost the lives of almost 2,000 of its soldiers, and the country its reputation across the entire Islamic world and beyond, and of which no end is in sight.

Belatedly, a moment of accounting has arrived. Not in the mind of a President who cannot admit mistakes, but in the agony of a great newspaper, in the re-opening of old battles within the administration - and in the conclusions of a special prosecutor from Illinois who right now has the most powerful men in the world waiting helpless. And, who knows, as a result of it all we may even learn why America went to war in March 2003.

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