A semi-innocent explanation of the facts in the Plame Affair

The Valerie Plame story makes no sense. It hasn’t made any sense from the beginning. That’s one reason, I think, that other bloggers and the mainstream press have been so slow to pick up on it.

We’re being asked to believe that an Administration that makes a fetish of security deliberately blew the cover of a secret agent who was gathering information about the acquisition by foreign governments of weapons of mass destruction, merely as a way of getting back at her husband for having embarrassed Bush. And you have to believe that they did so in a way that was completely traceable back to the Administration, even though burning one of our spies in that way would constitute an aggravated felony. Even if you think that the people around Bush are that thuggish — which, even for me, was a real stretch — it’s hard to imagine they could have been so reckless.

[The reason I find it hard to believe that the Bush people would burn a spook, even though I believe that they’ve done lots of things I find equally repugnant, is that I don’t think they regarded, for example, accusing John McCain of fathering an interracial bastard as really evil: to Bush and Rove, that was just good, clean fun. But my understanding of the Team Bush ethic would make burning a spook just about the worst thing one could do.]

The only reason for believing all this was that there didn’t seem to be any other explanation that fit the bizarre array of facts, starting with the fact that someone told Novak, accurately it turns out, that Valerie Plame was involved with recruiting her husband for a CIA mission, and Novak says it was two senior administration officials.

When I woke up this morning, an explanation was in my head.

Maybe — I say, “maybe” — whoever told Novak knew that Plame was with the CIA, but thought she was an overt analyst rather than a spook. That would have been an act of astonishing carelessness and incompetence, but not one of reckless cruelty and deliberate lawbreaking.

Here’s how I imagine it might have worked: at some point, maybe back when Wilson was being recruited for the trip, someone at the CIA mentioned to someone in the White House that Plame had been asked to talk to her husband about going. Then, two weeks ago, when the order went out from the center to slime Wilson, someone remembered that detail and thought that the suggestion that Wilson had only gotten the assignment through his wife’s influence might reduce his credibility a little. Without checking back with the CIA — with which the White House is not, at the moment, on very good terms — whoever it was then peddled the tale to Novak, and had someone else (these are two senior officials we’re talking about) confirm it when Novak called to check.

That would still be a pretty ugly story. First, it appears that it wasn’t true: Plame didn’t lobby to have her husband, the father of her two young children, sent to an unappetizing part of Africa on an unpaid secret mission. Second, if it had been true, it wouldn’t have been significant, except for the subliminal suggestion that Wilson, being dependent on his wife for getting work, wasn’t a real man. (Go back and read the Novak column and see if you can catch any other point to it.) Third, though under this theory there was no intent to destroy Plame’s career, threaten the lives of her sources, and weaken our ability to collect intelligence on WMD acquisition, there would still have to be incompetence calling for resigning and having the resignation accepted.

That, then, makes sense of why no one has raised his or her hand and offered this explanation in lieu of the much, much grimmer explanation that seems right now to be the only alternative.

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Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com