It is easy to imagine that Valerie Plame had it all, even if no one was allowed to know it. She was smart and beautiful and disarming, married to a former ambassador and the 40-year-old mother of 3year-old twins. Best of all, she had a job that let her try to save the world. At least she did until July 14. That's when her role as a CIA spy tracking weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was revealed by columnist Robert Novak after two Bush Administration officials leaked her identity to him. Her exposure was more than just a personal tragedy, though it was certainly that too. "Her career as an undercover operative is over," says former CIA officer Jim Marcinkowski, now a prosecutor in Royal Oak, Mich. He was a classmate of Plame's during the year rookie spies spend at the Farm, the Camp Peary, Va., school where CIA recruits learn how to read code and sneak through checkpoints and memorize secret documents. At the Farm, Plame stood out, he recalls, for being the best shot with an AK-47 in the entire class. "She will no longer be safe traveling overseas," he says. "I liken that to the knee-capping of an athlete."
But the reverberations of the latest scandal to rattle a presidency go far beyond the destruction of one covert officer's career. The charge on the table is that the White House leaked her name as an act of revenge, to punish her husband Joseph Wilson for suggesting in public that the Bush Administration had stretched the evidence about Saddam Hussein's nuclear arsenal in order to justify a new kind of war. With the latest polls showing support for that war waning and anger over its price tag rising, the Wilson flap fueled the perception that the White House cared more about selling its case for war than ensuring that the case was right in the first place.
What shook up the intelligence community also roiled the capital and set in motion the now familiar chain of scapegoating and backstabbing that has poisoned the past two presidencies. Having fumbled around in the drawer for months looking for a weapon to use against Bush, the Democrats saw an opening. On top of a moody economy, a messy war, a swelling budget deficit and a deeply polarized electorate, the leak charges came as Bush's poll numbers had sunk to the lowest point in his tenure. Indeed, with the presidential election a little more than a year away, only 37% of Americans believe the country is on the right track, according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll. When word spread last week that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was launching a full criminal probe into who had leaked Plame's identity, Democrats immediately raised a public alarm: How could Justice credibly investigate so secretive an Administration, especially when the investigators are led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose former paid political consultant Karl Rove was initially accused by Wilson of being the man behind the leak? A TIME review of federal and state election records reveals that Ashcroft paid Rove's Texas firm $746,000 for direct-mail services in two gubernatorial campaigns and one Senate race from 1984 through 1994. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said accusations of Rove's peddling information are "ridiculous." Says McClellan: "There is simply no truth to that suggestion."