the tipping point?

As anyone who has been paying attention knows, the Bush administration is heavily leveraged. I mean Enron-style leveraged: they’ve gotten by so far purely on promises and public relations. They have no accomplishments to point to: the economy is in the tank, the deficit is huge, homeland security is under-funded, our international credibility is in the toilet, Afghanistan is reverting to tribal rule, and Iraq is a mess. Their support hangs entirely on _trust_: trust that things are going to get better, and that they are telling us the truth. As Enron found out, when you’re heavily leveraged, one small tremor can bring the whole enterprise tumbling down.

For the Bush administration, that tremor might finally be here.

For non-political-geek readers, here’s the background: Joseph Wilson is a foreign service worker who was sent to Africa to investigate claims that Niger was selling Saddam Hussein uranium. He came back and filed a report concluding that there was nothing to it, no evidence that any such sale took place. This took place well _before_ Bush’s State of the Union speech, in which he claimed that “British intelligence has learned” that Hussein did make such purchases. In other words: our intelligence told us there was nothing to it, so Bush’s people feinted towards the Brits, knowing that the right impression would be created.

Much to the chagrin of the Bushies, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, drawing attention to his report. He helped lead an extraordinarily myopic, lazy national press to the “16 words” mini-scandal. In the course of fighting off that mini-scandal, the Bushies did what they do best: they lied and attacked their critics. They claimed that Wilson’s report never reached senior staff (a lie they eventually backed off, with no repercussions). But that wasn’t enough–the administration also launched a coordinated attack on Wilson, and that’s where our current story begins.

On July 14, Robert Novack, a respected conservative journalist, published a column in the Chicago Sun-Times in which he revealed that a “senior administration official” had told him that Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife, is (or was) an undercover CIA operative.

Yes, you read that right: in order to exact political revenge on a critic of their (self-admittedly false) rhetoric, they revealed the identity of an undercover intelligence agent. This is not only morally repugnant and tactically dunderheaded, but it is also in violation of Federal Law, namely the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

There was much outrage in some circles, but since the Bushies drew in the wagons and refused to comment on the story, many folks thought it was going to die from lack of light. However, weeks later Wilson publically named Karl Rove as the leaker, saying the following:

At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me, when I use that name, I measure my words.

Still, the study was studiously ignored for many more weeks. Until a few days ago, that is, when the Washington Post published a page one story about it. Here’s a quote:

Yesterday, a senior administration official said that before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife. Wilson had just revealed that the CIA had sent him to Niger last year to look into the uranium claim and that he had found no evidence to back up the charge. Wilson’s account touched off a political fracas over Bush’s use of intelligence as he made the case for attacking Iraq.

“Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge,” the senior official said of the alleged leak.

Now, the CIA, after an initial investigation, has handed the matter over to the Dept. of Justice and recommended a full investigation. That’s a big deal–there are two senior administration officials who broke the law, and at least one official willing to leak their names. It’s almost certain that everyone from Bush on down knows who did it, and that it was OKed at the highest levels. Right now the Bushies sound off-guard and confused; they’re simply saying that the DoJ investigation is “routine” and refusing any further comment. There could be subpoenas.

This is a breaking story with many movable parts. It could go in any number of directions. But it certainly is beginning to look like the kind of scandal that the Bushies can’t brush off.

It’s also worth remembering that the act itself — revealing the identity of an undercover intelligence agent for petty political purposes — is of such venality and amorality as to turn the stomach. Imagine what else they would do. Imagine what else they have done.

For more on the story, check this round-up from Mark Kleiman, and this post on his blog. Also be sure to check in regularly on Talking Points Memo, which is breaking every update as it happens. Finally, the normally level-headed and judicious Calpundit seems to have reached some kind of breaking point. Read this post and all the ones surrounding it. And of course stick with the Washington Post, who still owns the story.