A Stupid Crime,
    Or Just Criminal Stupidity?

Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball on MSNBC (in what seems to be a Newsweek story) [*] pass along a fascinating, though vaguely attributed, suggestion: that the famous phone calls from two top White House aides to six journalists other than Robert Novak before the Novak column appeared never actually happened.

The idea seems to be that Mike Allen’s source made a mistake about the timing, and the calls all came after the Novak piece, when Plame’s CIA employment was already on the record, though it shouldn’t have been.

Isikoff and Hosenball further suggest that whoever gave the information to Novak — the two reporters like Scooter Libby for the role — might not have known it was supposed to be a secret.

Well, anything’s possible. Two insanely monstrous blunders — one by Libby and a player to be named later in identifying Plame as CIA without knowing she was covert, and a second by Allen’s “senior Administration official” in somehow moving a group of six phone calls back a crucial week in time, and inventing “revenge” as the motive for an act never actually committed — seem hard to believe.

But is the alternative — that two people high in the Administration deliberately blew a big hole in the security of counterterrorism intelligence-gathering merely to get back at Joe Wilson, and did so in a way likely to get back to them — really any easier to believe?

One of the hardest intellectual and moral challenges in analyzing the behavior of people on the other side of any contest or dispute is to keep track of the fact that they don’t think they’re wearing the black hats. (“Evil” may be a good enough explanation of bad behavior to satisfy George W. Bush, but that’s part of the reason I’d prefer to have someone else as President.)

If you’re used to the idea that the people around George Bush do bad things, then it may be easy for you to swallow burning Valerie Plame as just another bad thing they did. But most of the bad things (bad, that is, in my view) that Bush and his colleagues do don’t seem bad to them, or at least seem justified. (Sliming John McCain to win the South Carolina primary? Just politics; too bad, but that’s the way the game is played.) From the very beginning, it’s been hard for me to see how any of those folks could have talked themselves into an act so appallingly wrong according to their own standards.

So I’m not going to dismiss Isikoff and Hosenball’s theory out of hand. Maybe Bush’s troops were, in this instance, criminally stupid rather than actually criminal.

However, there remains the fact that someone told Clifford May, former communications director for the RNC, that Wilson’s wife was CIA, before the Novak story was in print: at least, so Clifford May says [*]. So Novak wasn’t the only person who knew. And the sources couldn’t have been the same, because May’s source was someone no longer in the government.

So on balance I find the “pure accident” theory hard to swallow. But it might turn out to be true. That wouldn’t leave the Administration with clean hands: if it’s true, heads should have rolled eleven weeks ago, and the President should have apologized to Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson.

Still, unlike Talleyrand, I don’t regard blunders as worse than crimes. [Late update: A reader informs me this is unfair to Talleyrand; his famous bon mot was about the murder of the Duc d’Enghien, which was both a crime and a blunder.] I’d rather be ruled by the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight than by Don Vito Corleone and family. And that seems, right now, to exhaust the set of interpretations consistent with the facts.

Update Atrios points to some more evidence inconsistent with the Isikoff theory [*]:

Washington Post, 9-29:

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.

Arthur Silber at Light of Reason is also unimpressed. He thinks (1) the theory likely isn’t true and (2) stupidity isn’t much of a defense.

Dan Drezner is more willing to be convinced on the facts, but equally unflinching about the implications if this new theory is accepted.

Plame’s NOC status means that even if there was no criminal action, this was a serious breach of ethical boundaries, not to mention a threat to intelligence operations. For someone who’s supposed to bring honor and integrity back into the White House, Bush’s approach remains cavalier.

[*]

And Tom Maguire, instead of simply noting that Newsweek was about eight weeks behind Just One Minute in making the “oops” suggestion, gives some meaty analysis. [*]

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

2 thoughts on “A Stupid Crime,
    Or Just Criminal Stupidity?”

  1. Tom Maguire gets results from Newsweek!!

    Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball provide some interesting support for Tom Maguire's "oops!" theory of the Plame game. The highlights: No matter how voluminous the evidence to the contrary, the Bush White House likes to convey the impression of unflag…

  2. Tom Maguire gets results from Newsweek!!

    Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball provide some interesting support for Tom Maguire’s “oops!” theory of the Plame game. The highlights: No matter how voluminous the evidence to the contrary, the Bush White House likes to convey the impression of unflag…

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