It is hard to understand why it took a month for the ‘Plame Game’ to develop legs. David Corn deserves credit for breaking the story in mid-July in The Nation, and it has been doing the weblog scene ever since. This is much as it was with Bush’s uranium lie. The facts are put out there long, long before the mainstream press reaches a tipping point and starts bleating, sheeplike, about the ‘scoop’.
How big is this? Novak claims that his leak did little harm because Plame was merely an ‘analyst’, and not an ‘operative’. He says that CIA requests to journalists not to divulge covert data come in differing levels of insistence based on the danger of the security leaks, and that they were not very insistent in this case. But, as Eric Boehlert discusses in Salon, Novak’s attempts to softpedal the seriousness of the leak don’t quite hold water. First of all, analysts work undercover. In his Slate ‘Explainer’ column, Ed Finn lays out the levels of CIA cover (Flame was deeply burrowed in there) and why it is such a big deal that she was ‘outed’ — it is a felony and, as an analyst with years of experience on WMD, her discovery may compromise intelligence operations she has been involved in around the globe.
“Hard target” countries like China and North Korea often keep records of every known meeting between Americans and their scientists and officials. Almost certainly, those lists would have been frantically reviewed when Plame’s identity was revealed, and any sources she recruited could have been exposed.
Ex-CIA personnel are coming out of the woodwork left and right to confirm that Valerie Plame in particular was undercover for decades.
In publicly asking for an investigation of the ‘outing’, of course, the CIA is confirming that Plame was undercover. Although we cannot know how much damage has been done, we can assume that, for this to happen, they must have suffered some compromise.
As Jack Shafer points out in Slate, prosecuting the leakers is not going to happen. The CIA files complaints about leaks with the Justice Dept. every week (they are required to by law) and the investigations go nowhere even when the identity of the leaker is known. As CIA director Tenet said in his confirmation hearing in 1997, the effective thing to do when leakers are discovered is to fire them, not prosecute them.
Why did the administration leak Plame’s identity, and why in the world did the CIA go public with plans to have the leak investigated? As to the first of those questions, the back-and-forth banter is whether revenge was driving the White House sources. As an absurdist aside, Timothy Noah, in Slate, has a harebrained notion that the leakers intended to humiliate Wilson around the fact that he got a job through his wife. His argument is incoherent and seems to be designed merely to show us how clever he is in recalling neocon Adam Bellow’s recent book in praise of nepotism.
It does not seem to me that revenge works as an explanation. To be that petty when you would have to know you were violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (which, by the way, was prompted by George Bush’s father when he was CIA chief) and compromising national security seems more, umm, Nixonian than Shrubbish, regardless of what a cad I think Bush is. Ambassador Wilson himself feels the point was rather to intimidate future potential Bush administration critics.
Rafe Coburn, among others, suggests a more sensible explanation:
Those two people spread the word of Plame’s CIA employment so that they could allege that it was she, and not the White House, that suggested sending Wilson to look into the Niger mess. If, as was asserted originally, Wilson was sent to Africa in direct response to questions by Dick Cheney’s office, then the administration would have no excuse whatsoever for dismissing the findings that Wilson brought back (and thus putting the uranium line in the State of the Union address). So they told reporters that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA (which was classified) and that it was she who suggested sending him to Africa. The purpose was not to discredit Wilson nor was it revenge against him, rather it was a way of substantiating White House claims that they hadn’t seen Wilson’s report.
What is more difficult to understand is how the White House has lost its grip on the CIA enough that the latter could make a fuss about this matter. Has someone at the CIA gone rogue? Is this, as Bush defenders claim, a plot to discredit the administration? Or, perhaps, is the CIA’s public call for an investigation in some insidious way being orchestrated by the White House as part of their damage control efforts?
Will this become the next big Washington scandal, possibly the one that brings down the administration? I doubt it. Novak is not likely to give up his sources, like any good journalist, and it would be a political liability for the Democrats to push him too hard to violate the freedom of the press. What did Bush know and when did he know it? He is probably so insulated, particularly because the leakers knew their action was illegal, that it could never be established that he was a party to the ‘outing’. No White House tapes will emerge here. So this is not going to turn out to be an impeachable offense. Will it have an effect on the President’s polls or reelectability? Not unless the public understands enough about the intricacies of the situation — how deep was Plame’s cover? how damaging is outing her? — to get really bent out of shape. Outside of the pundits’ and webloggers’ universe, that is not going to happen.
So will the White House be planning just to hunker down and ride this one out, figuring the furor will dissipate long before the election season? Or is someone going to be a fall guy (which is not necessarily the same thing as asking who was actually responsible for the leak)? Before this broke, we watched the extraordinary scenario of the White House distancing itself from Dick Cheney’s remarks on the relationship between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11th. Perhaps Cheney would be a good choice to stop the buck here as well? If there is a real candidate for mastermind here, my vote is for Rove, but he is made of teflon. It is generally acknowledged that the reason the IIPA was passed was to stop rogue CIA agent Philip Agee from naming names of covert operatives. Shouldn’t Rove, or whomever, be considered as traitorous and felonious as Bush’s father and his cronies thought Agee to be?
Turning back again to the question of the media’s conduct in this affair, Shafer, by the way, makes much of the fact that six other reporters apparently turned down the offered leak before Novak ran with it:
The hidden good news in the Wilson-Novak-Plame melodrama is that it disproves a thesis that jaundiced readers, myself included, have about the weakness Washington reporters have for anonymous sources bearing scoops. Any of the six journalists who were offered the Plame story and declined to run with it could have gotten some sort of career-enhancing bump out of it. That they ignored the calculated leak, and the story ended up with an opinion journalist who used it to make his political point, indicates a level of discipline I didn’t know existed in the press corps.