Loyalty at any cost?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOYALTY, SECRECY, the boss' political standing: These are among the most highly regarded commodities in any White House. But in George W. Bush's White House they appear to rank above nearly all else, including the career and personal safety of public servants whose relatives embarrass the president.

All the facts are not yet in - and may never be. But somehow the identity of an undercover CIA agent was leaked to journalists after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly refuted Mr. Bush's prewar claim that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. According to an administration official quoted anonymously by the Washington Post, the agent's identity was offered by two White House officials to at least a half dozen reporters in what was described as a misguided attempt to undermine Mr. Wilson's credibility.

Amid the chorus of calls for an investigation of the leaks, the loudest voice should be that of the president himself. Outing a covert agent is not only reprehensible, but a federal crime that could put her life and others' lives in jeopardy.

Surely Mr. Bush, whose father once headed the CIA, doesn't want to even inadvertently send the signal that Americans who devote their lives to such dangerous work in service to the nation also risk being sacrificed for domestic political purposes.

Mr. Wilson suspects the leak had the blessing of Bush political guru Karl Rove; the White House denies Mr. Rove was involved. But the leakers were likely encouraged by the climate Mr. Rove has created in which political concerns regularly take priority over policy objectives. The firestorm Mr. Wilson created, forcing the president to retract his State of the Union claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Africa, may in some twisted mindset have justified whatever response the president's men could muster.

This incident is too important to the embattled U.S. intelligence community to be relegated to a routine Justice Department investigation - or worse, to the haymaking of Mr. Bush's Democratic challengers.

Leaking is standard operating procedure in Washington, but the offense here is so grave that the president must act immediately to find out who is responsible and at the very least demand their resignations.

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