WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- Since the Bush team moved into the White House in January 2001, it has been a truism among the Washington media that it was the most disciplined, leak-proof and on-message administration anyone could remember.
There is nothing wrong with that, of course. The Clinton White House was also very message-driven -- albeit rather leaky -- and in general it is not the job of any government to make journalists' jobs easy.
But recently, things have taken a more sinister turn.
Over the summer, the White House was forced to admit that the now infamous 16 words in the president's State of the Union Address suggesting that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy uranium from Niger should not have been uttered.
A major part of the onslaught that forced this retreat was the revelation by former Ambassador Joe Wilson that he had been sent to Niger to check the allegations and found them to be untrue. He wrote as much in an op-ed article in The New York Times.
Conservative columnist Robert Novak subsequently wrote that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA on weapons of mass destruction, and suggested that this -- rather than any real qualification for the task -- was why Wilson had been chosen for the mission to Niger.
Now, according to the Washington Post, it seems that this leak was not a real leak at all. Rather, it was part of a coordinated effort to out Plame. The Post cited a senior administration official as saying that two members of the White House staff had called at least six journalists trying to flog the same story.
A lot of damage control has flowed over the airwaves since then. It has been said that Plame was an analyst, not an operative. Some have suggested that she was not really undercover at all. But the fact is that Plame appears to have had the most sensitive and vulnerable cover of all: she was an NOC, "non-official cover." Not hidden safely behind diplomatic immunity, but working for a private sector energy consultancy.
And working moreover, on the very issue the Bush administration says was at the heart of its decision to go to war with Iraq: weapons of mass destruction.
Let's take a step back.
The administration, under fire because the evidence upon which it based its case for war appears increasingly shaky, has started a deliberate push back.
That may be an unwise response. Few who saw British Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech at the Labor Party annual conference last week would agree that his approach -- OK, I may have been wrong, but what would you have done? -- is likely to be more fruitful.
But still, pushing back is fair enough. That is the rough and tumble of politics.
But if the Post story is accurate -- and that's at least a medium-sized "if" -- Plame was outed as part of that push back: in an effort to undermine Wilson's credibility and punish him for speaking out.
It is bad enough -- as has been alleged -- to deliberately release information that might compromise Plame -- and everyone she has ever had even innocent contact with -- for spiteful political ends.
But what has happened is even worse than that. Plame's outing, whomever did it, has damaged the very effort the White House said it was pursuing in going to war in the first place.
A very important line has been crossed here. The integrity of the policy goals -- non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- is now seen by at least some in the White House as less important than the integrity of the message -- we didn't exaggerate the case against Iraq.
But actually, I think that line was crossed some time ago.
Consider the recent hagiography on the administration's response to Sept. 11, 2001, by Watergate alumni Bob Woodward. In it, he quotes verbatim from meetings of the National Security Council. This -- unless he spoke to a Cabinet official with an eidetic memory -- would tend to suggest that the minutes of those meetings had been made available to him.
As disturbing as it may be to think that the administration would show top secret documents to a journalist so he could write a fawning account of the White House response to the Sept. 11 attacks, it becomes more disturbing still if one considers the other half of the equation.
The minutes of meetings of the self-same NSC from before the attacks have been sought by both the congressional inquiry into the intelligence failures that preceded them, and the much broader national commission that the president finally agreed to set up when backed into a corner by Congress and the victims' relatives.
Neither has been granted access to them -- although the commission says it is still negotiating.
In other words, the administration will happily give top secret documents to a journalist with -- presumably -- no security clearance whatever. But it will deny those same documents -- on the grounds of executive privilege and national security -- to members of both House and Senate intelligence committees and to the inquiry that represents the American people's only real chance of getting an authoritative, independent account of what happened and what went wrong.
Again, the message seems to have trumped everything, even the need to get it right in the war on terror.
If one believes Frank Bruni, the line was actually crossed before Bush even became president.
In "Ambling into History," his fascinating study of the 2000 election campaign, Bruni describes how Bush's team raised the art of political theater to "Sondheimian heights," showing in the process "how much could be fixed with powder and puffery ... how all (Bush) had to do was stand on the right set, under the right lighting and say the right lines."
Alas, it is a lot easier to win an election with the right message, than it is to win a war.