Monday, October 13, 2003

Counterspinning Plame

Everyone, it seems, is starting to get the picture about the nature of the White House response to the outing of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative: namely, that it intends to try to spin its way out of any consequences for the matter by claiming that no criminal acts occurred -- flying in the face of the reality that someone on the Bush team leaked an undercover CIA operative's identity to Robert Novak and several other reporters, a crime (with extraordinarily damaging consequences) regardless how you cut it.

So far, Josh Marshall, Mark Kleiman, Atrios, Kevin Drum, Thomas Spencer, Tresy at Corrente and Christian Crumlish have all reached this conclusion.

Christian rather neatly sums up the White House's emerging spin points:
So there you have it, an innocent chance burning of an agent's cover (oopsie!), and then "fair game" to go after an administration critic's family (just politics as usual), capped by the leak to the Washington Post (betrayal!). I can see it now. How long before we hear that's their story and they're sticking to it.

Accompanying the White House spin, of course, is the predictable chorus from his media apologists: Pay no mind, move along, folks. The Plame matter is a mere "partisan" affair that will evaporate when the smoke clears.

If Republicans have proven incredibly incompetent at running the country, they at least have continued to display a knack for ruthless hardball politics and manipulation of the media. That the media more often than not seem all too happy to oblige is another matter.

Facts are to spin like garlic to vampires: effective, but only in well-coordinated bunches. Anyone interested in seeing justice done in the Plame matter -- which is to say, anyone interested in the integrity of national security and the rule of law -- will have to counter the spin of Bush apologists with some talking points of their own.

To that end, the following points strike me as the most significant:

A: The Plame affair matters.

It matters because a significant national security asset in the war on terrorism was badly compromised. Contrary to the conservative spin that Plame's outing didn't matter because "everyone" in the Beltway knew she was CIA (and, in some permutations, that she was only an analyst and not an operative), in fact Plame's status was a closely held secret, for overwhelmingly important reasons, as the New York Times explained:
[W]ithin the C.I.A., the exposure of Ms. Plame is now considered an even greater instance of treachery. Ms. Plame, a specialist in nonconventional weapons who worked overseas, had "nonofficial cover," and was what in C.I.A. parlance is called a Noc, the most difficult kind of false identity for the agency to create. While most undercover agency officers disguise their real profession by pretending to be American embassy diplomats or other United States government employees, Ms. Plame passed herself off as a private energy expert. Intelligence experts said that Nocs have especially dangerous jobs.

"Nocs are the holiest of holies," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former agency officer who is now director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "This is real James Bond stuff. You're going overseas posing as a businessman, and if the other government finds out about you, they're probably going to shoot you. The United States has basically no way to protect you."

Moreover, her exposure has widespread ramifications for the war on terror, as Warren Strobel reported Friday:
Training agents such as Plame, 40, costs millions of dollars and requires the time-consuming establishment of elaborate fictions, called "legends," including in this case the creation of a CIA front company that helped lend plausibility to her trips overseas.

Compounding the damage, the front company, Brewster-Jennings & Associates, whose name has been reported previously, apparently also was used by other CIA officers whose work now could be at risk, according to Vince Cannistraro, formerly the agency's chief of counterterrorism operations and analysis.

Now, Plame's career as a covert operations officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations is over. Those she dealt with -- whether on business or not -- may be in danger. The DO is conducting an extensive damage assessment.

And Plame's exposure may make it harder for American spies to convince foreigners to share important secrets with them, U.S. intelligence officials said.

... "This is not just another leak. This is an unprecedented exposing of an agent's identity," said former CIA officer Jim Marcinkowski, who's now a prosecutor in Royal Oak, Mich., and who also did CIA training with Plame.

As Josh Marshall has pointed out, the damage to America's intelligence on weapons of mass destruction may well be massive, and very well could result in the deaths of CIA assets abroad -- not to mention the extent to which it exposes the entire American populace to an increased likelihood of attack by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.

It matters because the deliberate exposure of an undercover agent's identity in a way that grotesquely compromises national security and the potential deaths of agents abroad constitutes outright treason.

And no, we're not talking about Ann Coulter's nearly hallucinogenic version of treason, but the Aldrich Ames kind of treason. The real thing that earns people prison terms.

It matters because the culpability for the leak goes right to the heart of the Oval Office. The sources of the leak appear to be within the inner circle of the Bush White House, including chief of staff Karl Rove, who has been identified by Jospeh Wilson, Plame's husband, and reporters as one of the administration officials who contacted them after the Novak column's appearance and exacerbated the effects of Plame's original exposure by explicitly encouraging its further spread.

The fact that these matters reach the highest levels of government is underscored by the reports that the White House, according to the Boston Globe, is reserving the option of resorting to "executive privilege" claims to shield some of its documents from the Justice Department investigation:
If the White House asserts a claim of executive privilege, [law professor Thomas] Sargentich said it would be a strong sign that the investigation is heading to the highest levels of the Bush administration, given that the claim can only be used to shield the president's decision-making process.

If the White House indeed resorts to this audacious tactic, it will be a tacit admission of the president's possible involvement.
B: The timing of the phone calls to reporters is irrelevant.

Contrary to the White House's emerging spin point, the difference between calls placed to reporters about the Plame leak before and after the Novak columns is ultimately inconsequential. As Mark Kleiman says: "Information does not stop being classified because someone else improperly reveals it."

Rep. John Conyers, in calling for Rove's resignation last week, made this point clearly:
The law states that even if you lawfully knew of Mr. Wilson's wife's status, you were obliged to come forward and report the press leak to the proper authorities -- not inflame the situation by encouraging further dissemination. 18 U.S.C. § 793(f). Larger than whether any one statute can be read to find criminal responsibility is the issue of whether officials of your stature will be allowed to use their influence to intimidate whistle-blowers.

It must be also noted that the White House's spin point here is severely undermined by other facts -- namely, two separate reports in the Washington Post that show several other reporters besides Novak were actively contacted by the leakers: The first, on Sept. 29, which reported:
Another journalist yesterday confirmed receiving a call from an administration official providing the same information about Wilson's wife before the Novak column appeared on July 14 in The Post and other newspapers.

Sunday's Post story carries the point even further:
That same week, two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to least six Washington journalists, an administration official told The Post for an article published Sept. 28. The source elaborated on the conversations last week, saying that officials brought up Plame as part of their broader case against Wilson.

"It was unsolicited," the source said. "They were pushing back. They used everything they had.”

It should be clear that the spread of the leak both before and after the Novak column was substantial.
C: The White House's conduct in responding to the leak so far constitutes at least an abject failure to live up to the responsibilities of its office, and perhaps an actual coverup.

Once the leak occurred -- on July 16 -- President Bush had an obligation to investigate the matter immediately and to find the persons responsible and deal with them appropriately (at the very least, dismissing them, if not turning them over for prosecution). Instead, the White House continued to actively pursue the spread of the leak with even more reporters.

No investigation was ordered until the CIA, in late September, filed a criminal referral in the matter with the FBI. And even then, the White House dragged its feet -- waiting a full day before ordering staff to recover the relevant documents, and then filtering them through White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez. Subsequently, the president himself has made clear that finding the original source of the leak is a low priority, warning that the leakers may never be found.

What is clear instead is that the White House is focused on finding the identity of the "senior administration official" whose information given to the Post has directly undermined the Bush team's emerging claim that "no classified leaks occurred." This in essence is an attempt to intimidate any dissenters within the Oval Office -- and possibly to get them to change their testimony. And that, in turn, may constitute obstruction of justice.

The Bush White House's behavior is rapidly approaching the impeachment stage. But if its spin succeeds, it may in the end escape any accountability for damaging the nation's security and placing us all at greater risk. And that will be the most egregious scandal of all.

No comments: