October 2, 2003

DANIEL DREZNER says that his Plame outrage meter is rising slightly, and links a lot of disturbing stories, though the sourcing on them is, as some of his commenters point out, a bit dubious. I still don’t understand what’s behind this, and I still find it hard to believe that someone would knowingly out an undercover agent — I still don’t see the “why” in this.

But since people who don’t usually care what I think seem anxious to hear my opinion, I think that the Bush Administration needs to find the leaker (if there is one), fire ’em, and prosecute ’em if it’s warranted. [You keep saying this. But what if it’s Rove or Cheney? — Ed. I don’t think it is. But if it’s Rove, he’s too stupid to stay on in a job whose only justification is his being smart. If it’s Cheney, ditto — plus it opens the way for a Bush/Rice ticket!]

So how do you do that? Well, you could do the usual Washington scandal dance — investigations, hearings, special prosecutors, etc. This would produce a long, drawn-out embarrassment that would please the media folks, who have been getting antsy for a good scandal, and the Democrats. It would also be bad for national security, if you agree that this passage from Josh Marshall is on target:

The backdrop to this whole scandal is the war that’s been going on between the Bush administration and the CIA for two years. Another reporter who’s knowledgable about these issues and not at all averse to this perspective, told me a few days ago that “there are people in this administration who think that the CIA was criminally negligent for 9/11 and that the whole place should be shuttered.” That’s an accurate portrayal of what a number of those people think.

That war with the CIA centers on the vice president’s office. If it turns out that Plame’s exposure originated there too, it will inject this legal controversy — this criminal investigation — right into that broader policy controversy, the whole issue of the war against the CIA, the questions over politicized intelligence, all of it.

I don’t know if it’s true, but the CIA did drop the ball before 9/11 and its performance since then, except for the generally successful paramilitary operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, hasn’t seemed especially impressive either. It’s certainly the case that we shouldn’t have this sort of internal warfare going on at the same time that we’re fighting a real war. (Howard Fineman has more on the White House vs. CIA angle).

Which is why I think the smart thing to do is to subpoena all the principals in this scandal and find out who said what to whom, when. This will disappoint scandal-mongers, and it might hurt some people in the White House (or it might not). Howard Kurtz comments that “Politically, though, that would be a PR disaster.”

But would it? I’ve noticed a certain coolness from members of the professional press since I started suggesting this, but I don’t think this would be a PR disaster, except maybe for the press if it resisted. I think that the public would support such an action, and that the press — having played this up into a big national-security issue — would do very badly if it tried to claim persecution.

The New York Times is already sounding worried about this, with an editorial that Chris Kanis summarizes as follows:

As near as I can figure, the Times’ take is that Bush must do absolutely everything in his power to figure out who leaked, because his failure to do so will prove that he is Richard Nixon. However, Bush must absolutely not conduct any investigation of the journalists involved, nor try to compel them to reveal their sources, because doing so would prove that he is Richard Nixon.

But even that editorial, which Kanis correctly characterizes as muddled, says this:

As members of a profession that relies heavily on the willingness of government officials to defy their bosses and give the public vital information, we oppose “leak investigations” in principle. But that does not mean there can never be a circumstance in which leaks are wrong — the disclosure of troop movements in wartime is a clear example.

Well, if the most serious charges are true — which we don’t know yet, but that’s what investigations are for, right? — we have the outing of an undercover agent, which is pretty close. (Note to the NYT — it is wartime). The editorial says that the investigation should focus on the White House, not the press — but the members of the press are witnesses. If this is as important as we’re hearing, they shouldn’t stand on (largely bogus) First Amendment claims. (If it’s not as important as we’re hearing, then, well, we shouldn’t be hearing that it’s so important.)

This wouldn’t be a scandal, or a national security issue, without the involvement of the press. The press isn’t just reporting this story. It’s part of the story. To a large degree, it is the story.

Bush should lance this boil by finding out what happened, and, if the charges pan out, getting rid of who’s responsible. And he shouldn’t be afraid to put the press on the spot. That will prevent similar future events, from both ends.

So there’s what I think. What’s it worth? Every penny you paid to read it!

Meanwhile, at the same low, low price, Edward Boyd offers an intriguing question. And Tom Maguire puts it well: “The CIA battles on many fronts! Whether one of those fronts still includes the war on terror concerns us all.” Indeed.

UPDATE: Reader Richard Aubrey offers a prediction:

The investigation, if it ever gets that far, will discover that the requirements of the law will not be met. Plame will not meet, or even come close to meeting, the definition of the operatives the law sought to protect. Nobody will be able to show a serious, or even unserious, effort to keep her ID secret. It will become apparent that her employment was publicly-available knowledge if not publicly known. Or possibly publicly known, too.

The leaker in question, should one ever be discovered, will then be able to make the case that he didn’t know he was outing an undercover operative since she wasn’t undercover.

It will all fizzle out on the legal end. That will be good for the dems who can then claim coverup. We’ll hear about that for a year and a half.

Were a leaker to be discovered, prosecuted, and punished, then Bush & Co. would have to be seen as ethical, serious, and interested in the law and national security over partisanship. The contrast would be too much for the dems to stand.

I’m holding you to this prediction, Richard!

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Doug Welty emails:

If the President himself had leaked the information, or had authorized someone who works for him to leak it, would _any_ crime have been committed? It seems to me that the “United States,” as used in 50 U.S.C. sec. 421, means the President. (And probably, automatically, his delegate the DCI. I’m not sure, though, whether his Chief of Staff or National Security Advisor – or Vice President – would be in that chain of command.)

His action disclosing the agent’s status would be conclusive proof that the United States is _not_ taking affirmative measures to conceal the agent’s identity. Case closed, no?

That’s probably right, but it would play badly. And I rather doubt that there was any such authorization anyway.

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