ANYONE who knew the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan has to wonder what he'd make of the CIA leak case.
The agency was one of his pet targets. Moynihan, a true Washington wise man, would get livid when he fumed about the CIA's "unbroken record of missing what's happening."
In a 1979 Newsweek essay, he accurately predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse in the '80s. The CIA, dead wrong, had no clue of the coming collapse.
At his monthly "tutorials" for New York reporters, Moynihan would recount with outrage that in 1987, just two years before the Berlin wall fell, the CIA was still claiming East Germany had a higher GDP than West Germany - when any cab driver in Berlin could have told you that was ridiculous.
CIA agents on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan have done amazing, brave things. But when it comes to intelligence, the agency keeps getting the big things wrong.
It missed 9/11. The Iraq war began a day early when then-CIA chief George Tenet claimed to have "pretty darn good intelligence" on where Saddam Hussein was hiding out; it turned out to be pretty darn wrong intelligence.
And Tenet wrongly insisted to a skeptical President Bush that CIA had a "slam-dunk case" on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. (That's Bob Woodward's account in "Plan of Attack," which Tenet has never disputed.)
But the CIA also, as Moynihan noted wryly to columnist Mary McGrory, has a history of covering its butt by coming up with "revisionist rumbles" to claim it had really gotten things right somewhere, buried in a secret footnote. Would Moynihan see the leak case as a familiar tale of the agency again getting things wrong - and looking for someone else to blame?
The story began in February 2002, when CIA staffer Valerie Plame Wilson got her bosses to send her husband, ex-Ambassador Joe Wilson, to the African nation of Niger to check if Saddam was trying to buy yellowcake uranium. In her later statements to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mrs. Wilson left little doubt she expected him to come back with a "no" when she told him explore "this crazy report."
For over a year, Wilson and some CIA officials denied that he got the Niger gig at his wife's behest - but both the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report and the CIA leak indictment say that's that case.
The taxpayer money spent to send Wilson to Niger didn't produce much. His report "did not resolve whether Iraq was or was not seeking uranium," CIA chief Tenet would later say. If anything, CIA analysts thought Wilson's report backed up the yellowcake story that his wife had billed as "crazy."
Wilson didn't make any claim to have debunked the belief in Iraq weapons for over a year after his February 2002 trip. But in May 2003, he joined Democrat John Kerry's campaign - and instantly began blasting Bush, first through anonymous leaks, then in a New York Times op-ed and on any TV station that would have him, even posing with his wife for Vanity Fair in his jaguar.
So why did the CIA let him do it? It sent Wilson on a sensitive mission - but didn't require him to sign the usual confidentiality agreement. Even though his wife was a CIA staffer, it let him go loudly public - violating the most basic precautions, if she truly wanted to protect her identify.
The agency didn't assert a right to vet the New York Times op-ed he wrote about his trip - even though such review is standard, and even though his Times account sharply conflicted with what he'd told the CIA. It was if the agency flashed him a giant green light to blast Bush.
Indeed, the indictment that could send ex-White House aide Scooter Libby to jail for 30 years also holds clear evidence that the CIA should have stopped Wilson from going public.
The indictment notes that on June 9, 2003, Libby got CIA documents about Wilson's trip to Niger that were marked "classified" - even though "they did not mention Wilson by name" and Libby didn't yet know about the role of Wilson's wife. That indicates that the trip itself was classified - so CIA should have ordered Wilson to stop blabbing.
But then, all this came at a time when the CIA division where Wilson's wife worked had an intense need to cover its rear: Remember - they were the ones who (along with every other intel agency in the world) had insisted that Saddam had WMDs - but no WMDs were being found.
Having Wilson go public was very useful to the CIA, especially the division where his wife worked - because it served to shift blame for failed "slam dunk" intelligence claims away from the agency. To say that Bush "twisted" intelligence was to presume - falsely - that the CIA had gotten it right.
When the White House ineptly tried to counter Wilson's tall tales by revealing that he wasn't an expert and his wife set up the trip, the CIA demanded a criminal probe - and then itself broke the law by leaking that news.
It now appears the CIA's entire referral was dishonest: The agency knew Plame wasn't a covert agent under the terms of the law, since she hadn't had an overseas posting in the past five years - and obviously neither she nor the CIA was taking proper precautions to protect her identity. Call it disinformation.
That almost certainly is why no charges have been filed against the mysterious X who first leaked Mrs. Wilson's identity to columnist Robert Novak, who published it. Since Mrs. Wilson wasn't a covert agent, she couldn't be outed. And that's why Libby is accused of lying to investigators but not of outing Wilson's wife.
As Victoria Toensing, a former Senate Intelligence Committee chief counsel, put it in the Wall Street Journal: "The CIA conduct in this matter is either a brilliant covert action against the White House or inept intelligence tradecraft."
For her part Toensing - who was Intelligence Committee counsel when Moynihan was vice-chairman - has no doubt about the answer: "It was a planned CIA covert action against the White House. It was too clever by half."
Spies, after all, get much better training than White House aides at double-dealing, leaks, disinformation and cover-ups. Sen. John McCain has called the CIA a "rogue agency." One can only imagine that Moynihan would agree.