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SUNDAY, JULY 17, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Plame controversy about president, not about Rove

The fury engendered by Karl Rove's alleged leak of disclosing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame makes for great water-cooler chat.

The main character in that drama, however, is not Mr. Rove but President Bush. The topic is not the outing of a CIA agent, but President Bush's determination to invade Iraq.

Rewind a few months for context.

The date was Jan. 29, 2002, when Mr. Bush gave his axis-of-evil speech. Iraq was one of three countries singled out by Mr. Bush.

The president's speech picked at a sore that still overwhelmed the American public. The sore was the still-infected memory of the terrorist attacks. He linked Iraq to 9/11, borrowing U.S. fury and directing it at Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bush explained to a seething population desperate for revenge that the link between terrorism and Iraq was real.

The CIA dispatched Joseph Wilson to Niger in February 2002. His mission: Find out whether Mr. Hussein tried to buy uranium ore or other components of a nuclear bomb.

Mr. Wilson headed to Niger. He talked to officials. He investigated. He found nothing. He therefore reported a simple fact to the Bush administration: Mr. Hussein had not tried to buy nuclear-bomb components from Niger.

Mr. Wilson was surprised when he heard President Bush cite the debunked rumor — that Mr. Hussein sought nuclear-bomb components from Niger — as a justification for invading Iraq.

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address. That was also the speech in which he told the American public he would invade Iraq even without a U.N. mandate.

So Mr. Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times. The president's statement, he explained, was either mistaken or a bold-faced lie. The only available information indicated Mr. Hussein had not tried to buy nuclear components from Niger.

If Karl Rove leaked that Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent, he did so to punish Mr. Wilson.

The core of the controversy circling Mr. Rove and Ms. Plame is this question: Did Mr. Bush first decide to invade Iraq and then seek evidence to justify that decision? Or did he review evidence then conclude an invasion was necessary?

The question is not an idle one. Our invasion of Iraq has, so far, left 1,756 Americans dead. Did those soldiers die because Mr. Hussein tried to assassinate President Bush's father? Or was there a legitimate link between Mr. Hussein and 9/11?

The question of whether Mr. Rove leaked the identity of a CIA employee will, at best, rank a footnote in history books. Whether President Bush initiated war against a country that posed us no threat requires a chapter, if not a book.

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