A Nutty Little Argument

by Ted on July 26, 2005

Sometimes I swear that Christopher Hitchens must be filming a boring PBS spin-off of Punk’d. What kind of a man responds to the exposure of a CIA agent by attacking the law that makes it illegal to expose CIA agents?

It’s a little rude to call arguments “self-refuting”, but I don’t know of a more appropriate term for this. It’s a terminally dishonest piece of work, and an embarassment to Slate. In the middle of sliming Wilson, Plame, and the CIA (“The CIA in general is institutionally committed against the policy of regime change in Iraq”), Hitchens forgets to offer an argument about why the law should be overturned. The reader gets no indication of what protections, if any, undercover CIA operatives are actually warranted. Hitchens just points to a few old New York Times editorials concerned about how the law would affect journalists, believing that Rove’s critics have somehow been hoist by their own petard.

I’d just like to bring one thing up. Hitchens believes that the CIA and Joseph Wilson are to blame, not Rove or anyone in the White House. After all, they failed to find evidence of Saddam’s attempts to buy Nigerean yellowcake, when, says Hitch, “(Niger’s) government, according to unrefuted intelligence-gathering from British and other European intelligence agencies, (was) covertly discussing sanctions-breaking sales of its uranium to a number of outlaw regimes, including that of Saddam Hussein.” But, of course, this intelligence has been refuted. The Iraq Survey Group had the benefit of the occupation of Iraq. They travelled anywhere they liked, interviewed anyone they liked, saw any document they liked. Their conclusion: “ISG has not found evidence to show that Iraq sought uranium from abroad after 1991 or renewed indigenous production of such material—activities that we believe would have constituted an Iraqi effort to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program.” So Wilson and the CIA deserve harsh punishment for failure to find evidence of a non-existent program. Sweet.

I know that I should just file Christopher Hitchens under “Boortz” and let it go. I will, soon. With that, I take you to the Fraysters, who are flaying Hitchens:


(Hitchens wrote) Could it be that there is an element of politicization in all this? That there is more to Mr. Wilson’s perfunctory “no problem” report from Niger than first appears? I would describe this as a fit, if not indeed urgent, subject for public debate.

Indeed, Hitch! It’s about time someone looked into the scandal of a government agent who gets sent into Niger to find evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. . .and claims he didn’t find any?! And why? Just because an Iraqi nuclear weapons program didn’t exist? Didn’t he get the memo?


And let’s review the supposed “benefit” to the country of finding out that Ms. Plame was a covert agent. Well, Hitch points out, it shows that the CIA somehow “influenced” Mr. Wilson’s mission. Ah, very suspicious, you might think. Except here’s the thing: it is stated clearly, in the op-ed that started all this, that the mission originated when Cheney asked the CIA to investigate the claims about Niger. So in other words, Hitch’s claim is that by outing Ms. Plame, we found out that the CIA was behind a CIA mission! Thank goodness for Karl Rove! Otherwise we might never have suspected that somebody dispatched by the CIA was…dispatched by the CIA!


Hitchens then goes on to call the law “unconstitutional” without explanation. Presumably, Hitchens thinks that protecting the identities of covert agents is not enough of a national security concern to find its way into an exception to the First Amendment. Perhaps Hitchens wouldn’t mind if all of government secrets were revealed to our enemies. (The author) knows Hitchens’ position is so absurd there is no need to get into caselaw.

Hitches then suggests “we observe the operation of this law in practice,” but incredibly fails to mention Rove, Libby, Novack, Cooper, Miller or anyone else who may have violated the law, or even the law. Rather, Hitchens attacks the victim, her husband, her employer, her boss, and a foreign government. Oh, Hitchens does pass off Rove’s guilt with an offhand, by-the-way, unsupported sentence which practically begs you to trust his conclusion that Rove is innocent of wrongdoing. (The author) likes evidence.

I love you Hitch. Really. You’ve been the true loyal opposition by beating liberals’ heads against the wall to explain what Islamofascism means, and why it should be the Left who most violently opposes it and supports the overthrow of the Arab Muslim status quo. Your hero worship of Orwell is fitting. History will show that you were one of the most important, honest and courageous thinkers in the beginning of this long struggle.

But this… Rove protection…is making you sound like a Bush partisan hack. Come on….

Rove leaked. Bush said he’d fire anyone who did. It’s now about Bush and his personal trustworthiness, how much his word to the American people is worth. He has a chance to salvage it a little bit by firing Rove. In the same way that this sorded affair has to do with the Iraq War, Bush’s word has to do with any possible success for the war in Iraq. The people have to trust him. For God’s sake, if he just fired Rove and apologized, he would help bind the country together to stick through this critical fight there. This is a partisan war, because mainly Bush has helped it be one.

Hitch, you actually undermine your eloquent support for knocking off Saddam by this petty defense of the Fat Bald Genius.


While we’re on the subject of duty, it bears mentioning the obvious risks that CIA employees take on for their service. I say it bears mentioning only because Hitchens is so dismissive of Ms. Plame “as a fairly senior female bureaucrat not involved in risky activity in the field.” (As a threshold matter, why on earth does the fact that Ms. Plame is a “female” make her work less risky? There’s a pretty compelling argument the opposite is true.) Calling Plame a bureaucrat (technically true I suppose because she works, like 100% of all government employees in a bureaucracy) is supposed to be ad hominem, but it is just silly. Plame, as an undercover CIA employee overseas, was a target every time she stepped off a plane (or on one that might be hijacked) anywhere overseas…

And all that does not begin to reach the danger that people working with undercover CIA officials are in. Being seen with a someone who is widely known to be an employee of some more innocuous branch of government than CIA, or an employee of some apparently harmless private company may not be very dangerous to a foreign intelligence asset secretly cooperating with our country’s intelligence services. When that foreign agent’s cohorts learn, though, that he’s been keeping company with the CIA, well, suffice to say the agent’s prospects for a long and healthy life take a significantly dismal downward turn. Again, this is a circumstance that Hitchens must figure is of only passing import, and, if you’re indifferent to our country’s ability to keep its human intelligence assets alive and well, then maybe Hitchens has a point. I don’t think that and if Hitchens is indifferent to the issue, well then the cost of being a political hack is not just his professionalism, but a little bit of his soul.


First, IIPA is a bad law because it’s egregiously overbroad, not because it’s acceptable to place the names of all our covert operatives on the front page of the news. The Espionage Act, for example, might come into play. Perhaps, under the Administration’s strange interpretation of precedents from military law, the leaker should be sent to Gitmo without having committed a crime. In other words, the act Rove and his friends committed should be and probably is a crime, and it’s only unfortunate that the law most convenient to use is (indeed) a poor one.

Second, even granting that the IIPA is bad law, there isn’t any law criminalizing Oval Office fellatio, and that didn’t stop Clinton from facing perjury charges. It looks like Administration officials lied under oath before the grand jury, either to save their jobs or to further the conspiracy to smear Wilson, Plame, and the opposition to the war.

Finally, Hitchens seems to sense the bankruptcy of this argument because he falls back on the attempt to prove that Wilson, although his report agrees with facts on the ground, is wrong, and the hysterical “mushroom cloud” warnings [lunaville.com] of the Administration were correct. We have searched Iraq up-and-down without finding any signs of yellowcake acquisition on that end and without finding any program that could utilize yellowcake even if it fell from the sky as a gift. To use a phrase that might awaken one of Hitchens’ now-repressed memories: he is accusing Wilson of being a premature anti-yellowcakist. Like the premature anti-fascists, Wilson should wear this label with pride.



Brian 07.26.05 at 7:18 pm

I don’t want to suggest that Hitchens’ post would be defensible otherwise, but it might be worth noting that the very first premise of the article is possibly misleading. According to Newsweek “the CIA’s initial “crimes report” to the Justice Department requesting the leak probe never mentioned that law”, i.e. the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. It seems Mark Kleiman has been right all along that the IIPA isn’t centrally relevant here.


the inner peace guy 07.26.05 at 8:28 pm


Looking sheepish, the blusterers of the cohorts come apologizing. “We have run out of arguments,” they admit, and so the soldier lays his weapon down to sleep with native girls, one at a time.

Peace at last.


Steve Burton 07.26.05 at 8:29 pm

Why am I getting this terrible sense of *deja vu*?


P O'Neill 07.26.05 at 8:36 pm

The deja vu is because Hitch has now hawked this drivel through two Slate articles and a supposed Deep Throat book review in the NYT, and the spectacle of the old leftie spinning for Karl Rove and the Pentagon gets more pathetic every time.


Eli Rabett 07.26.05 at 9:40 pm

I’ll repeat the argument here. As the Hitchens of the world, and the Roberts of the Senate get shriller and shriller it becomes clearer and clearer that major damage has been done and a lot of folk who gave information to the US on WMDs have been swept up because Rove and friends outed Plame and the company she worked for and everyone who worked for that company. In theory enough people to fill a Guantanimo or more. Where are the reporters trying to track back on this


Kate 07.26.05 at 9:48 pm

The more Hitchens writes, the harder I find it to believe that he’s not actually a clever liberal in disguise, working diligently to make Bush supporters look bad. Only it’s backfiring, because people are taking him seriously …

Now that I think about it, my reaction to Coulter is much the same.


Ben P 07.26.05 at 10:23 pm

The guy is just embarrassing himself here.


pastime 07.26.05 at 10:40 pm

Your most cogent insight is that it is the left that should be most opposed to islamo-fascism.That is completely true. But what of all the other *-fascists? And yes these days the * stands for various religious sects.

The war is as it always has been against statism – whether the state claims to get its legitimacy from the Proletariat, the people or some flavor of god it is still in its formal sense fascism.

I will lump the current national republican party in the statist bloc.


Rented Mule 07.26.05 at 11:05 pm

…not to mention the earlier column, in which Hithens compared those of us who attach significance to the Downing Street Memos to crazed disciples of the Da Vinci code.


schwa 07.26.05 at 11:16 pm

Why is it that almost all the pundits who proclaim Orwell as their favourite writer are these days people who would make Orwell vomit in revulsion? (See also: Tammy Bruce)


soru 07.27.05 at 2:42 am

Can I claim my $100 bet yet with the guy who predicted the Niger yellowcake story had no more to be said about it?



strewelpeter 07.27.05 at 3:03 am

Hitchens isn’t worth thinking about.

A question for anyone following American media through this brouhaha:
Are as many people in America aware of what is happening in Niger now as they are of what may or may not have happened there then?
The UN says 150,000 children could die following last year’s disastrous crop


MFB 07.27.05 at 4:20 am

At least they will die with lots of uranium, thanks to the invasion of Iraq.


Brendan 07.27.05 at 4:31 am

Does anyone remember Bernard Levin? They should, as Levin was in many ways the Hitchens of his day. Levin started as a bright, liberal newspaper commentator, became famous for his abrasive, ‘take no prisoners’ style, and then, slowly, as the years passed, drifted off to the right. This had a deleterious impact on his prose, which changed from bright, punchy and sparky to loquacious, prolix and long winded. Also, he fell in love with himself, the cardinal vice of those who live their lives in public.

Just as it seemed unbelievable to Levin’s ‘liberal’ friends that he would be taken in by Nixon and Agnew, doubtless it seems amazing to Hitchens’ liberal friends (if he has any left) that he is being taken in by Bush and Rumsfeld, but it will not be the first time intellectuals who pride themselves on being hard to fool are taken in by those who are paid to lie.

Levin ended up joining an organisation called Insight in which he was encouraged to ‘live out’ his fantasies, which led to him (apparently) dressing up in a tutu and dancing around in front of his (doubtless surprised) fellow cultists. If I believed in God I would pray every night that the same thing happened to Hitchens. The thought that this war just might lead to Hitchens putting on a tutu (and make up?) and dancing, say, a modern arabesque on the theme of ‘Bush’s victory in Baghdad’ would justify the whole Iraqi invasion, I feel.


nick 07.27.05 at 4:40 am

Are as many people in America aware of what is happening in Niger now as they are of what may or may not have happened there then?

ABC’s Nightline covered it tonight. Which means no-one will have seen it. Also, the missing blonde woman in Aruba is still blonde, female and missing.


bad Jim 07.27.05 at 4:41 am

Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn between those who are merely snorting the standard line and those who are injecting it directly.


focus 07.27.05 at 6:46 am

If it’s really that okay to publicize the names of CIA people, why doesn’t somebody file a FOIA request for the complete CIA directory? See if the CIA and the White House think it’s really okay.


Russkie 07.27.05 at 8:28 am

> It’s a terminally dishonest piece of work,

Sort of like Chris Bertram’s recent critique of Norm Geras which didn’t even link to Geras’ reply.


engels 07.27.05 at 8:54 am

> It’s a terminally dishonest piece of work,

Sort of like [XXX]


engels 07.27.05 at 9:01 am

[XXX] – insert irrelevant insult here


jane adams 07.27.05 at 11:33 am

People tend to believe a standardized set of things. When their views shift to accept a few concepts in a rival set they often start to adapt the rest.

Some of this is a matter of temperment. For example I might use terms like “right” or “conservative” or even “Bush supporter” and use them unfairly, but I do know that there are varieties, I try to include qualifiers, I try to use terms like “neo conservative” correctly knowing that Cheney and Rumsfeld don’t belong in that block, also noting many conservatives oppose the war, that Christian conservatives are less attached to “ownership society” and low taxes and believe in sacrifice for others and are struggling to raise concern for Africa…

Some people are aware of the diversity.

But many people when they start to get “informed” about politics do it exactlt as we would any other element of popular culture. They see a few “teams,” they accept their teams definition of the other teams and they start to get with the agenda.

Fortunatly most people aren’t that concerned or informed, they have other priorities and so are capable of some original perspective. Hitchens is not one of these. Tems like leftist or anti terrorist are rigidly defined roles. Based on history he will increasingly place himself among the more rabid, this is what typically happens when people convert to one side or the other.

It is this sort on both sides who usually succeed in domnating and defining the popular debate. The political and policy debate taking place among those with actual responsibility is usually more complex and does to some extent accept normal standards of reality. But the faith based systems do distort it, often considerably. When you have Rush Limbaugh commanding the first assault of Falluja against the desire of Marine commanders who wanted to continue with their original counterinsurgency plan, the one based on their efforts in central Vietnam before Westmoreland pulled them into his scheme, when you have Limpbowel deciding strategy, you have a problem,butt we have seen too much of this thing and Hitchens probably hopes he can become such a “public intelliectual” and direct policy.

What he probably does not understand that the choice he seems to be making is to become increasingly a robot for an ideology, he hopes that by being the “token leftist” and taking a few eccentric stands he will be the leader. He probably will not be much, all he will get is flattery. And there are indications of an increasing rigidity as foreign policy and economic utopias start to be more dystopian, so the poor guy is going to face some really tough choices if he wants to be with what he thinks is the “in crowd.”


Jon 07.27.05 at 12:29 pm


Can I claim my $100 bet yet with the guy who predicted the Niger yellowcake story had no more to be said about it?

I assume you’re joking.


Robin 07.27.05 at 1:10 pm

Let’s remember that he’s recently defended an Iraqi reality show that consists of captured and clearly beaten (alleged) insurgents making forced confessions to terrorism, as well as drunkenness and sexual license.

Watching Hitch is like watching Milovan Djilas–in reverse.


harry b 07.27.05 at 3:41 pm

Wow, I only remember the late Bernard Levin, and had no idea he started off liberal (you must be MUCH older than me, brendan). Can we access any early Levin writing? (OK, I’ll look it up myself). FAscinating to know about his cultism — or are you just making that up? (If so, its briliant to make it up, but better if its true) :)


ponte 07.27.05 at 3:50 pm

You’re a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay… Your hands are shaking. You badly need another drink”

George Galloway to Christopher Hitchens


Brendan 07.27.05 at 4:19 pm

‘Wow, I only remember the late Bernard Levin, and had no idea he started off liberal (you must be MUCH older than me, brendan). Can we access any early Levin writing? (OK, I’ll look it up myself). FAscinating to know about his cultism—or are you just making that up? (If so, its briliant to make it up, but better if its true) :

I took most of what I know about Levin from the Guardian obituary.

What strikes me as interesting about Levin is (though as you indicate most people haven’t heard of him nowadays) is that he used to be huge in Britain at least, far bigger than Bitchens has ever been. I wonder: will people actually understand the references we all casually make to Hitchens in 100 years time? Will anyone understand why ‘we’ ever thought he was so important? Will anyone ever have actually heard of him? (this goes for Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch X 100).

But yes Levin used to be a Communist, then a liberal, then a centrist then…..

The really interesting point about Levin and Hitchens is that people wonder how someone of Levin’s gifts could fall for Nixon: how anyone could. (as Clive James wrote, Levin continued to loudly proclaim Nixon’s innocence when even Rabbi Korff seemed to be having doubts, and was quick to claim that anyone who thought a crime had been committed at Watergate must be in league with the Kremlin or Chairman Mao).

The answer is simple: the war. Levin, like many other intellectuals at the time (though they keep quiet about it now), had convinced himselves there was a global ‘Communo-fascist’ movement, threatening the US in China, in France, in Russia, in South Africa, in Vietnam, and so on and so on. It was obvious (he felt) that if you opposed Nixon in this WW3 situation you were ‘objectively’ on the side of the terrorists. And terrorism is not a metaphor. Nixon himself claimed in his autobiography that he was ‘pushed into’ the state of affairs that led to Watergate by the Weathermen.

Likewise, very obviously, Hitchens now feels that he has been backed into a corner and that anyone who fails to defend Bush (no matter what) is ‘objectively’ on the side of the ‘Islamo-fascists’.

If anyone cares there is a classic (and very funny) demolition of the ‘later’ Levin in Clive James “From the Land of Shadows”. James put his finger on the fundamental problem with the ‘later’ Levin: although his subjects ostensibly varied, his real subject was always ‘Why I, Bernard Levin, am so incredibly wonderful and clever and witty and moral.’

To change the subject entirely, while checking up that last reference I came across a piece by Oliver Kamm praising Levin to the sky.

There is obviously no logical connection between the two paragraphs immediately above this one.


Citizen Cain 07.28.05 at 12:30 am

There are just so many things wrong with Hitchens’s article, it would be hard to address them all. I focus on a few on my website, including the ridiculous idea that the Intelligence Identities Protection Act somehow inhibits anyone from criticizing the CIA, and that it inhibits debate. Massive illogic and twisting of facts from beginning to end.


Slocum 07.28.05 at 6:53 am

Well, it seems to me that Hitchens has decided what all this really is is a political knife fight not really about covert agents but about Iraq, and he’s got his blade out. It’s not just those on Hitchen’s side of the argument who explicitly see it that way. See this from Frank Rich (via Dailykos via Adrian Huffington):

This case is not about Joseph Wilson. He is, in Alfred Hitchcock’s parlance, a MacGuffin, which, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a particular event, object, factor, etc., initially presented as being of great significance to the story, but often having little actual importance for the plot as it develops.” Mr. Wilson, his mission to Niger to check out Saddam’s supposed attempts to secure uranium that might be used in nuclear weapons and even his wife’s outing have as much to do with the real story here as Janet Leigh’s theft of office cash has to do with the mayhem that ensues at the Bates Motel in “Psycho.”

This case is about Iraq, not Niger. The real victims are the American people, not the Wilsons. The real culprit – the big enchilada, to borrow a 1973 John Ehrlichman phrase from the Nixon tapes – is not Mr. Rove but the gang that sent American sons and daughters to war on trumped-up grounds and in so doing diverted finite resources, human and otherwise, from fighting the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. That’s why the stakes are so high: this scandal is about the unmasking of an ill-conceived war, not the unmasking of a C.I.A. operative who posed for Vanity Fair. “


One can agree Mr and Mrs Wilson are really Mr and Mrs MacGuffin from either side of the divide. The political struggle over Valerie Plame is, in both Rich and Hitchen’s views, is little more than a proxy war in the larger, ongoing political ‘cold war’ over Iraq.


Quiddity 07.28.05 at 9:58 am

Ted: Thanks for doing the work of selecting and reproducing Fray comments.


Luke Weiger 07.28.05 at 8:43 pm

I think Alex Cockburn produced an essentially similar response.

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