Victorian born novelist and St Kilda supporter, and long-time Webdiary columnist  Kerryn Higgs spends a lot of time in New York, and lives the rest of the year in northern NSW. She's been obsessed with the looming environmental crisis since 1972 and is working on the relationship between globalisation, economic growth and the future (if any) of the planet.
Her regular visits to New York began the day before the 2000 election, so she watched the shutdown of counting in Florida by the US Supreme Court at close range. Living amongst New Yorkers, a breed unto themselves, has enriched her view of America and complicated her longstanding interest in its politics, history and impact on the rest of the world. Her 2004 articles The failure to prevent 9/11: Clarke's story  and Bush on the ropes: his awful deeds post S11  reported on Clarke, the US counter-terror co-ordinator under every administration since Reagan, as he fronted the 9/11 Commission.
Her last piece for Webdiary was on Blowin' in the wind , the film by David Bradbury on the nature and effects of ‘depleted’ uranium (DU) munitions.
Again writing from New York, Kerryn reports on the early outing of iris and the alleged criminal outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of Joseph C Wilson, the CIA envoy investigating the fake Niger yellowcake deal.
The irises and Patrick Fitzgerald
by Kerryn Higgs
I left my garden bulbs in Australia last week before the first buds appeared, sorry to miss their splendour. But arriving in Kingston - 70 miles north of New York City and several degrees cooler - I find the iris here in rampant flower, buds bursting every day. They imagine, apparently, that spring is in the air. Locals assure me no one here has seen anything like it before. Simultaneously, the most intense Atlantic hurricane ever measured appeared in the Caribbean.
As Webdiarist David Roffey has detailed here in Climate change update 3: Greenhouse 2005 , the climate stories come thick and fast these days. Quite a few caught my attention in the past few months. The Siberian tundra, with its immense load of sequestered methane, is beginning to thaw , an instance of what is called positive feedback - where the immediate consequences of a process magnify that same trend. UK scientists have also measured increasing CO2 loss from temperate peat bogs . The Arctic sea ice is vanishing  at extraordinary speed, another positive feedback, where seawater absorbs even more heat from the sun, instead of reflecting it back into space the way the floating ice did. And last week it was revealed that the vast Antarctic ice-sheets may be far less stable  than previously supposed.
Rather than exaggerating the extent of warming, the signs are that we might have seriously underestimated the speed and degree of climate change. Indeed, one team of geologists  has foreshadowed feedback events cascading towards a global inferno such as that of the Permian extinction some 250 million years ago when most of the world's species disappeared.
Meanwhile, the cliffhanger story here is the culmination of Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of Joseph C. Wilson. Wilson was the envoy the CIA sent to Africa in February 2002 after Vice-President Cheney asked for more information on the story that Niger had sold yellowcake to Iraq. Documents purporting to prove this happened were later passed via a journalist from an Italian "security consultant" to the US Embassy in Rome.
Iraq's supposed nuclear ambitions were a key element in the Bush administration's case for the "grave and gathering danger" from Saddam's alleged WMD, which served as the primary pretext for the invasion of Iraq as well as the central fear motivating US public support for war.
The Niger documents proved later to be inept forgeries and Wilson found no evidence for the uranium deal. He made his report in March 2002, a year before the invasion. His findings were disseminated to the CIA, the State Department and presumably reached the Vice-President's office - which had asked the question.
However, Wilson's report had no impact on the administration's trajectory and did not prevent the President from repeating the African uranium claim in his January 2003 State of the Union address, eight months later.
When Wilson realised Bush's State of the Union speech was referring to the same allegation he had debunked ten months earlier, it looked to him like the intelligence was being cooked - or "fixed" as the Downing Street memo put it. See this Newsweek article  for a summary of the memo story. His distress about the apparent manipulation of intelligence culminated in his own piece, "What I Didn't Find in Africa", published in The New York Times on 6 July, 2003 (archived here on Common Dreams.org ).
Valerie Plame's cover blown
Senior administration officials contacted various reporters to tell them that Wilson had been sent to Niger by his CIA agent wife, Valerie Plame. A week later, on 14 July, syndicated conservative columnist Robert Novak published the story. The supposed nepotism was apparently intended to undermine Wilson's credibility and the grim consequences for his wife (cover blown) demonstrated what whistleblowers might expect.
In the USA, it's illegal to reveal the identity of a covert agent - though it is not Novak who has committed a crime but the person(s) who disclosed the classified information in the first place.
In fact Plame was working under the deepest form of cover - "non-official". She worked out of a front organisation and enjoyed no diplomatic protection if something went wrong. Since Novak's article, she is obviously unable to pursue her career and her entire network has been rendered useless, its personnel endangered. Ironically, she was working on preventing WMDs from falling into terrorist hands.
Under pressure from the CIA, Attorney-General John Ashcroft's Justice Department and the FBI began inquiries into the possible felony in September 2003. Dozens of high-ranking White House officials were interviewed.
It is inconsistencies between these early testimonies to the FBI and later statements which could form the basis for indictments over perjury or obstruction. Martha Stewart, for example, went to jail for just such an offence - lying to the FBI - rather than for the insider trading she was found guilty of lying about.
Fitzgerald takes over
On 30 December 2003, the case was taken out of Ashcroft's hands. Apart from being a member of the same administration which harboured the leaker(s), Ashcroft had specific connections with Karl Rove ("Bush's Brain") who had handled political campaigns for him. It was rumoured at the time that Rove, White House advisor and fixer, might have been fingered by someone lower down. Chicago prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was named to take over the investigation.
Fitzgerald is widely regarded as independent and unlikely to allow political loyalties to cloud his judgement. For nearly two years, Fitzgerald has worked in camera with sparse indications of his hunches, his findings or his intentions. Occasional leaks have emanated from lawyers associated with targets of the inquiry, and some witnesses have published their stories. Most of those who have testified have been identified. But nearly two years have gone by without substantial information about the likely outcome of the investigation.
In the past weeks, however, there's been an avalanche of speculation as Fitzgerald nears his October 28 deadline.
We do not yet know who actually released Plame's name to reporters. We think Novak had one source whose name has not been made public. Two prominent members of the Bush administration have admitted talking to reporters about Plame - Cheney's Chief of Staff 'Scooter' Libby and Karl Rove, but both have maintained that it was reporters who told them Plame's name and job.
According to several sources, Fitzgerald is examining the possibility that blowing Plame's cover was a desperate tactic in a far-reaching conspiracy, first to falsify WMD intelligence and, later, to destroy Wilson's credibility and warn off other potential whistleblowers.
UPI news service cited NATO sources yesterday  in reporting that Fitzgerald is investigating the Niger forgery, which was executed on letterhead stolen from Niger's embassy in Rome. The pursuit of this line of inquiry may suggest that Fitzgerald suspects connections between these fakes and administration officials.
The Judith Miller story
New York Times journalist Judith Miller (notorious for her links with Chalabi's defectors and her prewar front page stories based on their "intelligence" about Iraqi WMD) spent 85 days in jail rather than disclose her confidential source. Her reputation varies from First Amendment goddess (protecting journalists' constitutional right not to divulge their sources) to government stooge. Ultimately her source, who turned out to be Libby , waived her pledge of confidentiality. She was released on September 29.
Since then, she has appeared twice before the prosecutor and publishing an extensive account of her story in last weekend's New York Times (archived here at TruthOut.org ). One curious admission made here was that she agreed to Libby's request to misrepresent him as a staffer in Congress rather than a senior member of the administration. Though reporters keep the identities of their sources confidential, it's unusual to agree to fudge their status.
After Miller's first testimony to Fitzgerald, the Times "found" an additional Miller notebook in their Washington office, covering an earlier conversation with Libby back in June. It included references to Plame. Miller claims she has no recollection of writing them down. Such lapses of memory on the crucial details seem incomprehensible in a top journalist. Avalanche of speculation - is Fitzgerald pursuing conspirators?
Fitzgerald established a website late last week , which some commentators believe could be used to post indictments. Suggested outcomes range from the President suddenly sacking Fitzgerald or issuing pre-emptive pardons, to Fitzgerald extending the inquiry or closing the case with neither charges nor report, to indictments of senior officials (possibly Libby and/or Rove) or conspiracy charges reaching to the very top - to Cheney perhaps, or even Bush. Some commentators also caution that proving the actual felony involved in leaking Plame's name may not be possible and any charges will more likely be confined to perjury or obstruction.
The more radical speculations are anchored in rumours that Fitzgerald's pursuit of the felon(s) who outed Plame has led him to examine the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) - the team set up inside the White House to market the war - and to investigate the overall process whereby bogus intelligence was deployed to launch the US - and its "coalition of the willing" - into Iraq. WHIG's records were subpoenaed  in early 2004.
WHIG was set up as the marketing arm of the war effort and both Libby and Rove were members, along with Whitehouse Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and several other communications specialists. See Card's interview with Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times (archived here krigskronikan.com ). The initial Commission that looked into what went wrong with US WMD intelligence before the war put the blame entirely on the CIA, though it was not authorised to look at the role of policymakers in interpreting intelligence . That issue was supposed to be taken up in Phase II, promised before the 2004 election and shelved by the new administration . There has still been no public inquiry into the use and/or abuse of intelligence by the administration.
Even if Fitzgerald decides against indictments, the problem for the administration will not go away. Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson are preparing a civil suit against administration officials which they say they will launch if they have to.
Whatever he does decide, the most salutary result of Fitzgerald's work has been in bringing back into public focus the ruthless tactics employed to sell a war decided upon well in advance, with an objective of regime-change presented in the fictional - but far more saleable - guise of disarmament. See my Webdiary piece here for some of the evidence of the plans to attack Iraq dating back to September 11 and before. As US threats to Iran and Syria continue, it is to be hoped that Fitzgerald's inquiry contributes to ongoing public scepticism this time around.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that an attack on Syria was not an "option" the President would be taking "off the table". When Senator Lincoln Chafee pressed her as to whether she agreed that an attack on Iran or Syria would require new authorisation by Congress, Rice declined to "circumscribe presidential war powers  [which] the President retains... in the war on terrorism and in the war on Iraq." New York Times columnist Frank Rich argues  that Rove pushed for the war in 2002 as a poll-reviver and election-winner. Given Bush's current abysmal ratings, US citizens should all be extremely cautious about the War President's next campaign.