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York: Will GOP demand Plame-style leak investigation?

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A lot of lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, are angry about the damaging national security leaks that have come out of the Obama administration. But Republicans are probably angrier, and their feelings can be explained in two words: Valerie Plame.

The Plame affair was a complicated, tortured episode in which the George W. Bush White House was accused of having deliberately leaked classified information -- the identity of an undercover CIA agent -- to score political points during a particularly intense time in the Iraq war. Now, many Republicans believe the Barack Obama White House has deliberately leaked classified information -- among other things, details of the U.S. cyberwar against Iran -- to score political points during a particularly intense time in the presidential campaign.

As Republicans demand an independent investigation into the Obama leaks -- many are not satisfied with the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder, a friend of the president, to appoint a pair of U.S. attorneys to look into the matter -- it's worth looking back to see what can happen when a special prosecutor investigation spirals out of control in a politically-charged atmosphere.

The Plame story began in 2002, when the CIA sent a former ambassador to Africa on a secret mission to investigate whether Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire material to make nuclear weapons. Turns out the former ambassador, a man named Joseph Wilson, opposed Bush's Iraq policy and in July, 2003 wrote a New York Times op-ed revealing his role in the trip and accusing Bush of lying about weapons of mass destruction.

Blindsided, Bush administration officials wanted to know how Wilson had been chosen for such a sensitive job. Turns out he had been recommended by his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA. When the late columnist Robert Novak reported that in a column, using Plame's name, Democrats accused the Bush White House of blowing the cover of a CIA secret agent.

After weeks of media drumbeat demanding a special prosecutor -- there's been nothing like it so far in the Obama leaks controversy -- Bush caved and OK'd an investigation.

Unlike Holder, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the matter, and the investigation was handed over to Patrick Fitzgerald, a gung-ho prosecutor who served as U.S. attorney in Chicago. Fitzgerald was given all the powers of the Attorney General for the purposes of the investigation; he became, in effect, the Attorney General for Valerie Plame.

The results would have been comic had they not been so ugly. The world didn't know it at the time, but Fitzgerald knew from the very start who the leaker was -- it was a top State Department official named Richard Armitage, who seemed to have leaked Plame's identity to Novak by simple carelessness. Choosing not to pursue Armitage, Fitzgerald instead spent years trying to find out if any other Bush officials had lied to investigators.

Fitzgerald paid particular attention to senior Bush aide Karl Rove, who just happened to be a top target of Democrats. The prosecutor called Rove before a grand jury on five separate occasions. Rove, who could have invoked his right not to testify, complied. Rove also turned over his Blackberries, his computers, and every scrap of paper he had produced during the time in question.

Rhetoric surrounding the case veered out of control. Many on the left hoped for what they called "Fitzmas" -- that is, the day Fitzgerald would give them the gift of indictments against Rove and perhaps even Vice President Dick Cheney. Rove found himself routinely accused of treason.

In the end, Fitzgerald didn't have the evidence to prosecute Rove or Cheney. Instead, he snared Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, who was charged with lying to investigators. In March 2007, Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Now, with the Obama administration accused of leaking, Republicans who suffered through the Plame affair are asking: Will this leak investigation be as aggressive as Fitzgerald's? After all, the Iran cyberwar leak was far more damaging to national security than the Plame leak ever was.

Will David Axelrod, at the time one of the president's top political aides, be forced to make multiple appearances before a grand jury? To hand over his phones, computers, paperwork? Will prosecutors flyspeck every word of every Obama aide?

The questions leave some Republicans conflicted. On the one hand, such a circus would be bad for the presidency and the country. On the other hand, Democrats deserve it.

By the way, Patrick Fitzgerald recently announced he will step down as U.S. attorney on June 30. He'll be available.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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