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Monday, September 29, 2003

Jeepers, Mrs. Wilson! Let's not all jump off into the deep end, okay?

I've just spent about three hours getting reasonably up to speed on the Robert Novak/Amb. & Mrs. Joseph Wilson/Tom Clancy affair that's been rocking the blogosphere today.  (Out of respect for statutes allegedly broken and confidences allegedly violated, I shall avoid using the maiden name of former Ambassador Wilson's wife, although I note that it appears to rhyme with "blame," "came," "dame," "fame," "flame," "game," "lame," "maim," "same," and "tame" — unless she gives it a French pronunciation, in which case I frankly don't give a damn.)

Tom Maguire has been blogging in Just One Minute about this story for some time, most recently here and here.  Daniel Drezner has moved from switching-party-level outrage to something less condemnatory and more openminded.  There are generally good-quality comments on their posts, and also on posts by Pejman Yousefzadeh (here and here, the latter of which includes quotes from and links to the relevant statutes, thank you!) in his blog, Pejmanesque.  Mark Kleiman is fairly hysterical repeatedly, and Kevin Drum of CalPundit is predictably witty and acidic and especially eager to quote Republicans who have been pottymouthed, but his comment sections go on and on without end, beyond what I am willing to parse or even wade through.  I no longer quote or link to, and rarely read, Josh Marshall, who I've concluded — based on his studied refusal to correct a significant and indisputable mistake about the recent history of Texas redistricting — lacks ethics and integrity; you can find him yourself if you wanna.  And don't forget Professor Reynolds at InstaPundit or the inestimable Jane Galt of the delightfully named Asymmetrical Information.  Finally, no round-up would be complete without Novak's latest ("There is no great crime here"), Amb. Wilson's backtracking ("I think I was probably carried away by the spirit of the moment. I don't have any knowledge that Karl Rove himself was either the leaker or the authorizer of the leak."), and Clifford May's argument that lotsa folks already knew of Mrs. Wilson's CIA connection before Novak ever published.

Whew!  Read all that and you'll know a lot about almost nothing.  Indeed, you'll see that some of the big news from yesterday or a few weeks ago (for example, Ambassador Wilson's rather premature and immature and unfounded reference to Karl Rove being "frogmarched out of the White House in handcuffs") has ... evanesced.  To say that there is conflicting information bouncing from the blogosphere to conventional media and back is a considerable understatement.

I have just three points to make at the moment (variations on comments I've left at various other blogs), and I'll try to be brief (by BeldarBlog standards):

  1. The statute making it a crime to deliberately "out" a covert intelligence agent is important.  It's important that violators be caught and punished; but it's important that the innocent not be unjustly accused of violating it.  Broad-brush painting is extremely dangerous in this matter, especially now.

  2. The fact that the CIA has asked DoJ to investigate emphatically does not mean — as Professor Kleiman among others asserts — that we can already "say with confidence that serious crimes against the national security were committed by at least two people."  The CIA unquestionably has a substantial interest in seeing that the statute is vigorously enforced, but that only means that it ought to report all plausible allegations of violation to DoJ — not that it should make any attempt to pass on the merits of such allegations itself!  The CIA has its own lawyers, yes, but their job is to keep the CIA from violating the laws (no simple or frivolous task); it does not have prosecutors.  CIA would be acting outside its mandate and competency if it were to dismiss any even remotely plausible allegations, and would be accused of cover-up by the very same people who are already calling for a special prosecutor.  DoJ, by contrast, exists for the exact purpose of gathering facts, analyzing and applying law to them, and prosecuting crimes if it finds probable cause to believe laws have been broken.  It has career prosecutors who have the trust of both Janet Reno and John Ashcroft, along with the experience and the security clearances to dig into this.  That CIA has referred this matter to DoJ means nothing more than that the rule of law is being pursued and enforced by the appropriate authorities, which is no small matter and a good thing in and of itself.  But as Prof. Kleiman might recall, there's also a role to be played by that other branch of government — you remember, the ones with the funny robes? — before anyone can conclude with reasonable confidence that someone, or anyone, is guilty of a crime!

  3. The President ought not be "out in front" on this.  He has a role in setting and generally enforcing White House staff policy on leaks, it's true, and from all reports this administration has in general been the most leak-free and disciplined of any in recent history.  He also could have a role, hypothetically, in proposing further or amending legislation on this subject.  When and if anyone is convicted, finally, he may also have a role in reviewing any requests for executive clemency or pardons.  But there are extremely sound and long-recognized reasons for a President — any President — to avoid trying to do the DoJ's job for it, and to stay the hell out of an on-going DoJ investigation or prosecution.  Just as with the CIA and its lawyers, this would be outside his and his staff's field of competence and would inevitably look like a cover-up.  And a President has no business opining on any accused defendant's guilt or innocence before trial and the exhaustion of all appeals.  If you're such a Bush-hater, so committed a member of the Angry Left, that you believe seriously George W. Bush would approve of or condone this stuff, nothing he (or I or anyone else) could say or do now would convince you differently anyway.  And if instead you've got a clue about how Dubya actually feels on the subject of covert intelligence and the War on Terror, you don't need him holding a pep rally to be persuaded that he's already done what's appropriate — no more and no less — in terms of motivating DoJ's professionals in general.

I'll likely have more to say as things continue to develop.  What a surprise, eh?

Posted by Beldar at 11:58 PM in Current Affairs, Law (2006 & earlier), Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


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(1) Robert Modean made the following comment | Sep 30, 2003 10:40:02 AM | Permalink

An excellent post and one that should be required reading every morning for the next week by partisans of both stripes.

I personally believe that there's a lot less going on here than all the breathless reporting and hyperventalating on both sides would indicate. As near as I can tell, about the time the "16-words" non-scandal was flaming out, Wilson wrote an Op-Ed that ticked off the Whitehouse because it added a little fuel to the fire. Novak conducted a series of interviews with two Senior Administration Officials (SAOs) about Wilson and the Niger trip and both of them said that Plame recommended her husband for the job and she was a CIA WMD analyst. Novak verified with a separate contact that Plame did in fact work for the CIA and according to his contact (in summary), that she was an analyst, not an agent, and she didn't handle a network of operatives so Novak could write about her. Novak then interviewed Wilson who refused to talk about his wife (understandably I might add), and this prompted Novak to go back and actually ask the CIA if Plame worked for them. The CIA said, "yes, Plame works for us. Oh, but please don't print that." Novak figures, "hell, if the CIA didn't want me to print it they'd have said don't print that or you're ass is grass, not pretty please." So he ran it in the story anyway.

That's when the story really takes off. That's when Wilson starts talking about the Administration trying to smear him and that's when we get the unnamed Administration sources who are cold calling reporters to push the Plame/Wilson story in an effort to discredit his Niger report. The funny thing is this part is slimy but not actually criminal. The potentially criminal bit occurred when the first two guys actually talked to Novak. Even then it's only criminal if A) she actually is a covert officer and B) they knew she was a covert officer. That's why the CIA asks the DOJ to conduct a routine investigation into the matter.

Interestingly enough, the CIA itself bears some responsibility for this whole mess. After all, how stupid is it that if she actually is a covert officer that the CIA admitted that she works for them? Shouldn't they be denying the status of covert operators? Isn't that the best way to protect them, to deny they work for you? 'Cause if I'm a hostile foreign agency and I think there's a CIA operative keeping tabs on me, my new course of action is to call the CIA and ask "Does John Smith work for you?". Apparently they have no problem with identifying their own people.

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