D- D- D- Defense

by Ted on September 29, 2003

Brad DeLong has a good post asking, “Where are the grown-ups in the Republican party?”

Hanyes Johnson and David Broder wrote a book called The System about the rise and fall of Clinton’s health care plan. (Incidentally, DeLong reviews the book here.) One of the most interesting threads is about the struggle between “Bob Dole Republicans” and “Newt Gingrich Republicans” for the soul of the party. Sheila Burke was one of Bob Dole’s advisors who found herself at the pointy end of the Gingrich Republicans:

By June, Sheila Burke found herself experiencing abuse of a kind she had never known before, all as a consequence of “the Right being ginned up.” The True Believer mentality was at work, she thought. “They support nobody who doesn’t totally agree with them,” Burke said then. “It’s not about governing, which is what we do.” She paused, and repeated for emphasis, “It’s not about governing. That’s not how they think.”

The System, page 385.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that quote this weekend as the Plame/ Wilson story developed.

There’s a mess of good commentary, from Calpundit, Daniel Drezner, Atrios, Mark Kleiman, Oliver Willis, Josh Marshall, Billmon, Tom Tomorrow, Quiddity Quack, and many others.

It’s very interesting to see the lines of defense that are being thrown up. One main line of defense seems to be throwing poo at Clinton (see Jane Galt’s comments), at Ambassador Wilson (“What possible benefit… when what they could have said is what the British did say, which is that Wilson was gullible and inept?”– Glenn Reynolds. Also see Clifford May), at filthy hippies (“I suppose I should just be happy to see such solicitude on the behalf of a reputed CIA agent from people who aren’t usually so solicitous“- Glenn Reynolds), or at opponents of the war in Iraq (“I rather doubt that most of the people who are so exercised here were condemning that hero of the antiwar left, Philip Agee, who really did put lives in danger“- shooting for the stars, that’s funnyman Glenn Reynolds. My emphasis). I doubt that anyone needs me to explain why these approaches are not terribly helpful.

Another line of defense seems to be that it’s no big deal; it is presumed that Plame is not in personal danger because she’s probably retired or a desk analyst somewhere. This is the meme that says that the only threat is to Valerie Plame’s travel schedule.

Hogwash. The relevant law doesn’t say that revealing classified information is only a crime if it can proved that it threatens someone’s life. Arguing that “no one got killed” is irrelevant and stunningly amoral. However, I’d like to put to bed the theory that Valerie Plame wasn’t a real CIA agent:

She is a case officer in the CIA’s clandestine service and works as an analyst on weapons of mass destruction. Novak published her maiden name, Plame, which she had used overseas and has not been using publicly. Intelligence sources said top officials at the agency were very concerned about the disclosure because it could allow foreign intelligence services to track down some of her former contacts and lead to the exposure of agents.

The most popular line of argument seems to be sheer disbelief. It just doesn’t seem likely that senior Administration officials would take this kind of risk for such a small reward. Again, Glenn Reynolds:

It doesn’t make sense to me. First, if you want to “intimidate” someone, committing a felony at which you can be caught—and which doesn’t hurt the target—doesn’t seem to be the way to do it. What possible benefit was there to the Bush Administration in saying that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?

I talked about this story to my apolitical fiancee yesterday, and she had the same thought. “Why would they do that?”, she asked.

I can see the logic. The risk/ reward ratio of exposing Plame seems wildly out of whack. It’s a risk that I wouldn’t dream of taking; the behavior is so outrageous that I can’t blame the press for sitting on this story.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter what we would have done in their place. There are a couple of facts that have to be explained-

  • Robert Novak got Valerie Plame’s identity somehow.
  • The CIA has performed its own investigation and formally asked for a Justice department investigation.
  • A senior Administration official (probably CIA director George Tenent, but who knows) says that two senior Administration officals contacted at least six journalists trying to spread the story, in violation of the law.

The aides said Bush has no plans to ask his staff members whether they played a role in revealing the name of an undercover officer who is married to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, one of the most visible critics of Bush’s handling of intelligence about Iraq.

(Tim Dunlop has some interesting quotes from back in the day about how Dubya used to feel about people who leaked classified information.)

In order for the White House to be totally exonerated, Bob Novak has to be deliberately lying, and George Tenet has to be opportunistically using the false story in order to smear the White House. Surely no one believes that this is what happened.

Barring that, the absolute best outcome for the Administration seems to be that they collar two low-level staffers. No journalist comes forward and says that they were approached by different Administration officials. These people go to jail.

The White House claims that the multiple news stories identifying the leakers as senior officials are all wrong. Then they shut up, refusing to say any more or comply with subpoenas.

They will then have to explain why they did absolutely nothing about felony leaks of classified information for more than two months, whereas they complied with a request for phone logs from the Weekly Standard within a day or two.

As far as I can see, this is the best case. Republicans of conscience may want to reconsider if they want to go down with this ship.

UPDATE: Mark Levin at NRO has another line of defense: Joseph Wilson brought this on himself:

Why would the CIA choose Wilson as the administration’s fact-finder on the Niger uranium issue knowing that his wife’s activities might become exposed? Well, in the same Robert Novak column that reveals the identity of Wilson’s wife, Novak reports that it was Plame herself who recommended her husband for the job!

Shouldn’t it have occurred to someone in CIA management that sending the husband of an agency operative on a highly sensitive, high-profile mission could jeopardize that operative’s activities?

While I’m all in favor of investigating national-security-related leaks, we’ll never know if foreign-intelligence agencies, among others, had already learned of Plame’s position thanks to the attention her husband drew to himself by taking the Niger fact-finding assignment in the first place. Like it or not, Wilson bears some responsibility for his wife’s predicament.

Holy moley. This is a deeply disingenuous argument. I suspect that everyone involved felt pretty all right about sending Wilson because (a) he was an ambassador with a great depth of relevant experience, and (b) they never dreamed that someone would cynically expose his wife to try to discredit him.

It’s also worth pointing out that the trip to Niger happened months before the uranium issue became politicized. No one could have known before the trip whether the claim was true or false (that’s why he took the damn trip), no one could have predicted that the sixteen words would appear in the State of the Union, and no one could have predicted that it would become a political issue.

Wilson made a choice to inject himself into the national debate when he wrote the “sixteen words” editorial. But should all administration critics assume that they will be the target of smear campaigns? Could he have any reasonable suspicion that his wife would be a target?

Apparently that’s the argument, and it stinks.

{ 13 comments }

1

Tom Runnacles 09.29.03 at 7:55 pm

On Prof Delong’s review of ‘The System’ rather than on the Plame business:

That piece is as informative and interesting as one would expect from DeLong, and given his personal involvement in the whole affair and well-established general brilliance, I’d be damn silly to attempt disagreement with him about the substance, but still…

I’m not sure it matters terribly much that Johnson and Broder aren’t policy experts in the field. I took the purpose of ‘The System’ to be to document the workings of the sausage machine, to describe the way in which the politicians, lobbyists and interests ended up dancing their dance. J and B are, after, political journalists, and from my reading of the book, very gifted ones.

As a Brit with an amateur interest in US politics, I found ‘The System’ absolutely fascinating.

2

pj 09.29.03 at 8:39 pm

I would add to your evidence that Tom Brokaw has publicly stated that a White House official contacted Andrea Mitchell about Plame back in July, and that NBC news discussed the story and decided not to use it. So Brokaw and Novak have to be liars.

3

brayden 09.29.03 at 9:08 pm

I just want to point out that it doesn’t matter how you justify the actions of “senior administration” officials, what they did was illegal and unethical. I’m interested in seeing what kind of smear strategy WH officials will use to get even with Tenet, since he is clearly no longer on Bush’s favorite-person list.

4

Tom Runnacles 09.29.03 at 9:41 pm

Blimey. The Plame story is, at the time of writing, the lead story on the BBC’s World News site.

International feeding frenzy ahoy, one can only hope, and not before bloody time.

5

brayden 09.29.03 at 9:45 pm

I just posted on my site that Bob Novak says on CNN’s Crossfire that his sources are NOT part of Bush’s White House. He also claims that Plame was not a spy but an analyst. Seems to contradict what he said earlier doesn’t it?

Looks like Novak is getting a little defensive.

6

Brett Bellmore 09.29.03 at 9:50 pm

Two points:

First, if this Plame story is legitimate, whoever leaked her identity should rot in jail. *In the cell next to Bob Novak’s.* Somebody told him, he told the WORLD. Who did more damage?

Second, the problem with the Bob Dole Republicans is that they’re rather like German train conductors: Obsessed with the trains running on time, and not at all concerned about where they’re going. Maybe the Gingrichites aren’t concerned enough about the schedules, but at least they understand that getting the cattle cars to Auschwitz on time isn’t an accomplishment to be proud of.

Dole never did understand that avoiding bad accomplishments was as important as achieving good ones.

7

Doug 09.29.03 at 10:05 pm

Six comments and time to invoke Godwin’s Law already – that was quick!

8

Brett Bellmore 09.29.03 at 10:19 pm

Why waste time? ;) Anyway, I’ll point out that “German train conductor” is a time honored metaphor for somebody more concerned with making the system work, than with what the working system will produce.

9

Keith M Ellis 09.29.03 at 10:22 pm

Brayden, that’s extremely interesting information–no one seems to be discussing it yet.

It would explain a lot of things if it wasn’t actually the White House that leaked the info. It would explain the White House’s inaction on this coupled with their apparent lack of preparation for the questions about it. It _wouldn’t_ explain why Wilson says that he’s been told by other journalists that the White House contacted them, nor why Andrea Mitchell has said that she was contacted. (Did she affirm that she was contacted by the White House?)

I mean, I’m a bit at a loss here. As much as I want to, I’m having trouble believing that Novak is lying because, if it is a lie, it will quickly become apparent that it is.

10

John Cole 09.29.03 at 10:25 pm

Not only did he invoke Godwin’s Law, but he confused the Gingrich Republicans with the Dole Republicans.

Fool.

11

brayden 09.29.03 at 10:33 pm

Bob Novak’s claim that the senior officials were not from the White House was made only an hour ago on CNN. He said he was saving the story for his network, although he’s been harrassed by phone calls from reporters all over the world today.

To be on the safe side, I should add that he may have said something like, I never said the sources were White House officials, which could mean something else entirely.

I’m not sure I believe Novak. He seemed very testy (testier than usual) during the show, and at times he looked flustered. Even if Novak’s sources weren’t from the White House, the Washington Post is claiming that one source has identified the White House as the original source of the leak. Keep in mind that six other journalists failed to report on the story after being contacted.

12

Brett Bellmore 09.29.03 at 10:54 pm

You’re clearly confused. Gingrich was the one who shut things down, Dole was the one who kept things moving smoothly by helping to defeat Republican filibusters.

13

alkali 09.29.03 at 11:12 pm

Atrios points out that Novak is saying that the White House didn’t contact him, which is not the same as saying that the White House was not the source (e.g., if Novak called them up and they said it in the course of the conversation).

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