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September 28, 2003

THE PLAME/WILSON STORY remains, in Roger Simon's words "too complicated" for me to feel I really understand it. But here's the Washington Post story, and here's a roundup of commentary by Brian Linse. My big question on all of this is "why?" I'm not sure I find Brian Linse's "pure revenge play" theory plausible, though I'm not sure I find Roger's crime-writer instinct that it was a setup to embarrass the Bush Administration plausible either.

Meanwhile, Josh Chafetz sounds a cautionary note, and Tom Maguire has perspective, while Daniel Drezner is more upset than some of his commentors.

UPDATE: Reader Matthew Brown emails: "I don't believe for a second that the Plume story is 'too complicated' for you. It's about intimidation of whistleblowers, no?"

Well, that's what some people say. But 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? When what they could have said is what the British did say, which is that Wilson was gullible and inept? Had Plame been fired on a pretext, or Wilson's taxes been audited, or some such, then there'd be an "intimidation" argument. But this? Perhaps I'm too missing something here, but this seems like a rather tepid version of intimidation -- or, for that matter, revenge. I can't help but feel that there's either more to this, or less, than we're hearing. And I guess if it weren't for the palpable desperation on the part of people looking for a scandal with which to tar Bush -- reminiscent of numerous right-wing Clinton critics from about five or six years ago -- I might be more inclined to say "more" instead of "less."

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.

ANOTHER UPDATE: On the other hand, Donald Sensing writes:

I happen to have been a seminar attendee in 1993 in which Wilson was a speaker one day. There were only about two dozen attendees, some of us military and others civilian government factotums from all branches of government. So we had very informal and engaging discussions with the daily speakers.

I found Wilson to be expertly knowledgeable on the Middle East and quite sober-minded. I rate his credibility extremely high, so I find the charges he has made very credible and very disturbing.

Sensing's view makes this more credible and disturbing to me. But I still wonder why, exactly, anyone would do this, even if they were trying to intimidate a whistleblower. And read the comments to Sensing's post.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Kori Pirouz emails:

Shockingly, you really don't get what is intimidating about blowing the cover of a CIA agent. What could be more intimidating than putting an agent's life at risk? I'm curious to know.

I don't think that Valerie Plame is undercover in Islamabad, so I don't quite see where the risk is. There may be risks to contacts she developed in the past, which would be bad -- but why would that intimidate Wilson? This seems like a case of manufactured outrage to me. 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.

But if somebody did endanger Valerie Plame as a means of intimidating Wilson, that would be contemptible. But once again, I don't see the reason for taking this approach, even if your goal was to intimidate Wilson. Surely the White House could do a better job, if that were the point, without violating the law or endangering national security. Unless you buy this theory from reader Stephen Galbraith:

W. Post says that "two Senior Administration officials" informed 6 journalists of Plume's CIA connections/work. Hmm, one must be Ari Fleischer. The other is? Rove?

That doesn't make sense. It sure doesn't smell of any larger orchestrated effort. The White House, according to all sources I know of (Woodward et al.), is very secretive and squashes leaking. We don't see this M.O. operating in any other way.

Fleischer and Rove late one night after a couple of beers? Wonder if they initiated the calls or the press?

I'm not sure why one has to be Fleischer, but the beer thing doesn't ring true, either.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: This bit from reader Robert Jeffers makes more sense than anything else I've read:

Wilson himself does not think that the exposure of his wife as a CIA agent (something he has been careful to neither confirm nor deny, in every interview with him that I've heard or read) was meant to intimidate him. He obviously discounts the idea that it somehow impugns his credibility or integrity (the reason Novak gave for identifying his wife's status with the CIA; i.e., that he was asked by the CIA to go to Niger because of her connections, not his reputation/background). But he understands that it intimidates anyone else who might come forward. A warning shot across the bow to other whistle-blowers, in other words: don't embarass us (as Wilson did) or we'll ruin your careers, too (as Ms. Plame's "undercover" career has been ruined). Which, of course, is the classic response to whistle-blowers: it is too late to intimidate
the one who has blown your secret. All you can hope to do is to send a message to anyone else with secrets to tell. That's where the intimidation comes in.

As for the revelation itself, it really isn't necessary that Ms. Plame now be in mortal danger ("in Islamabad," as you so artfully put it) to be a felony. Obviously her career is at an end, at least the one she (probably) enjoyed. That's intimidation enough for anyone else who needs the paycheck. Now Ms. Plame cannot travel anywhere without being suspect, perhaps even subject to revenge (who knows? It sounds a bit "James Bond-ian" to me to even type such a thing, but then again, the law doesn' t require that disclosure place the agent's life in danger to be a felony). The law is meant to protect national security. According to a source who spoke to the Washington Post, that concern was trumped by political concerns. The fact that it may be petty is not the issue, any more than it made sense to send the burglars to the Watergate complex. This isn't, after all, a mystery novel. It is real life, and truth is usually more petty than fiction.

Well, that last is certainly true -- just read my email! The whole notion seems a bit farfetched to me: transferring Ms. Plame to clerical duties in Ougadougou would have been just as effective a punishment (and intimidation), and not a felony, wouldn't it? If the "outing" claim is true -- and at the moment it's rather thinly sourced -- it involves behavior that's contemptible, and (I think, based on what I've read on other blogs and in news stories) illegal. Not to mention phenomenally stupid. Nor is it clear to me what "whistle" Wilson actually blew, when you actually look at the Niger uranium story's facts -- the White House, after all, never said anything specifically about Niger. But assuming that it is true, Jeffers' explanation of the "why" makes more sense than anything else that I've read on the subject. Perhaps Roger Simon will weigh in.

MORE: Megan McArdle:

When liberals start championing the CIA as a beacon of truth and justice, something is amiss. I'm suspicious of both sides, especially since, if this were Clinton, 99% of the liberals would be telling us that the CIA are a bunch of lying bastards who can't be trusted to tell you that the sky is blue, and 99% of the conservatives defending Bush would be declaring that the CIA are the watchdogs of our liberty and how dare you impugn their motives?! So for now, I'm just going to wait and see.

Read her whole post.

UPDATE: Reader Patrick Dunne emails:

I don't understand why, if outing a CIA agent is so outrageously terribly awful, these anti-Bush people aren't more incensed at Robert Novak. Wasn't he the one who actually published her name for the "evil-doers" to see? Wasn't he a dupe, if these people are to be believed, who became a tool for nefarious schemers in the Administration? Where are the questions about his judgment and journalistic integrity? If they Administration actually approached six journalists, doesn't this mean five of them had the integrity and judgment to decline to break the law and endanger this woman and Novak didn't? How does Novak retain any reputation if this thing is such a humongous scandal?

The whole thing smells of a cooked up scandal a la BBC v. Tony Blair if you ask me.

I don't know if Novak comes under the statute or not, but that would have no bearing on the moral status of his actions. I have to wonder why anyone in the Administration would shop a story like this to Novak, who doesn't like Bush and has notorious Arabophile tendencies that would make him seem a dubious choice to me. But then, there's obviously something going on here that I don't fully understand.

STILL MORE: Did the CIA do the leaking?

MORE YET: John Hawkins writes:

However, there is a big flaw in much of what's being written about this story. That flaw is that it is being treated as a given that this story was leaked by a member of the Bush administration. While that may turn out to be the case, there is little at this point beyond a leak from an anonymous source to indicate that is what happened. . . .

In any case, a felony was committed here. If someone in the Bush administration did the crime, then they should be fired and put on trial. That's the law and it applies to everyone. However, before people start leveling wild accusations against the Bushies they ought have better sources than an "anonymous aide" and a bitter husband who has already had to eat some of his own words about this very matter. There is going to be an investigation and if what that anonymous aide & Wilson said is true, there's are an awful lot of people who know about this -- far too many to cover it up.

Stay tuned.

EVEN MORE: Clifford May says everyone knew Plame was an agent. That's typical (as lefty critics of the Agency are usually pointing out). He's got more background on Wilson, too. Here's a link to the statute in question, too, though I'm not at all familiar with its actual application.

And Roger Simon has responded to my invitation to comment further. He's suspicious.

FINAL UPDATE: I've updated this thread a lot, rather than posting new items, because a lot of people were linking to it, but enough is enough. I actually counted the words before adding this update and it came out 1,860. That's two or three op-eds worth. There's a later post here, and I'll update more as needed. (I'll try to remember to always use "Plame" in the post, so it'll be easy to find on a search, too.)

Reading the stuff above, it seems to me that one reason why this is so confused is that the nature of the charges is vague and shifting. Was Plame put "at risk?" Or not? Was the purpose to intimidate Wilson? Or someone else? I'd like to see more specificity. The trouble is, at this point we don't know enough.

Follow the link (way up top) to Tom Maguire's page, where he's got a chronology. That helps some, but things are all rather maddeningly vague.

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