By Eric Mink
Of the Post-Dispatch

Post-Dispatch Columnist Eric Mink

It's ironic that political genius Karl Rove - and perhaps others - could end up in prison for exposing the identity of an undercover CIA agent. Ironic, because their essential mistake in doing so was one of identity: their own.

They think they work for President George W. Bush. They don't. They work for America.

There's no reason to believe that Rove gave much thought at all to Valerie Plame Wilson, a 20-year CIA veteran working in the agency's counterproliferation division, when he mentioned her to at least two reporters in July 2003. The only reason she was in his sights was that she was married to Joseph Wilson IV. Wilson, a retired veteran U.S. diplomat, had gone public with disturbing information that the Bush administration might have twisted intelligence information to support its campaign for starting a war with Iraq.

In February 2002, the CIA sent Wilson to the African country of Niger to check out sketchy intelligence information suggesting that Iraq tried to buy Niger uranium for making nuclear weapons. Vice President Dick Cheney had been told about the report earlier and had asked for more information. Advertisement

Wilson found no evidence of any recent purchases by Iraq and told the CIA so when he returned. His findings were consistent with doubts already held by the State Department's intelligence division.

Nevertheless, the administration's top officials - Cheney, Bush and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice - continued to link Iraq with African uranium right up to the start of war in March 2003.

Wilson finally debunked the claims in a commentary published on the op-ed page of The New York Times on July 6, 2003, forcing the White House to make a rare admission of error the next day. In a statement issued July 11, then-CIA director George Tenet took full responsibility for the mistake. But on July 22, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley admitted that Tenet had warned him (and Rice and White House speechwriter Michael Gerson) months earlier that the Iraq-Africa-uranium story was questionable.

At that point, the president's credibility on the Iraq war was in serious jeopardy, and the White House was reeling. This was the precise period of time when Rove discussed Wilson's wife's CIA job with Time magazine's Matt Cooper, syndicated columnist Robert Novak and possibly other journalists.

It was classic distraction and misdirection, time-honored tools of stage magicians and political sharpies and honed to a fine art by Rove over many years. Nothing up my sleeve; look here. Shift press attention from the administration's credibility to Wilson's credibility, even though Wilson's published account of his brief mission to Niger was beyond reasonable dispute.

Rove told Cooper on July 11, 2003, according to a detailed account in this week's edition of Time, that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA in the area of weapons of mass destruction. Rove also said that she, not Cheney, was responsible for sending Wilson to Niger.

Actually, she wasn't responsible for sending him, and Wilson's commentary never said Cheney had sent him.

Never mind. Misdirection. Cooper didn't bite immediately, but Novak did. He identified Wilson's wife using her maiden name, Valerie Plame, in a column published July 14, 2003. He also cited her CIA job and attributed the information to two unnamed senior administration officials.

The CIA requested an investigation of the leak of its agent's identity; special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald convened a grand jury to see if laws have been broken. Several might apply.

Meanwhile, distraction and misdirection continue: Consider the astute Tuesday-night timing of Bush's announcement of a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The administration's response to the Wilson-Plame-Rove mess has been a laughable catalogue of excuses from denial to defense to rationalization - not unlike the ever-changing rationales offered for the invasion of Iraq after weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found. There is nothing laughable, however, about the effects of Rove's blind zeal to reinforce Bush's power and advance his agenda.

The greatest threat to America today is international terrorism, and the worst-case scenarios, as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff reminded us last week, involve terrorists acquiring and using a weapon of mass destruction.

Valerie Wilson, 42, was an undercover agent in the counterproliferation division of the CIA's directorate of operations: Her focus was intelligence about the spread of weapons of mass destruction. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, not even the Wilsons' next-door neighbors knew she worked for the CIA until Novak blew her cover two years ago.

It's impossible to say whether or to what extent this has jeopardized her life and work and that of her contacts and sources, to say nothing of other agents associated with her fake employer, Brewster Jennings & Associates of Boston. What is certain is that Valerie Wilson no longer can work undercover and that an American intelligence asset 21 years in the making - she joined the agency in 1984 - has been irreparably damaged.

In a commentary published Sunday in the Sacramento Bee, former Republican congressman Pete McCloskey recalled a visit he paid years ago to John Ehrlichman, the late former domestic policy adviser to President Richard Nixon. Ehrlichman was in federal prison at the time, having been convicted of obstruction of justice, perjury and conspiracy for helping orchestrate the crimes of Watergate.

McCloskey said he asked Ehrlichman, an honorable World War II veteran and attorney, why he had lied for Nixon. Ehrlichman replied, "It took us three-and-a-half years to be corrupted by the power. . . ."

I don't know whether Rove, now Bush's deputy chief of staff, is a criminal, but I know he suffers from a case of mistaken self-identity. Yes, he serves at the pleasure of the president. But Rove works for the people of the United States of America. He has betrayed their trust.