Faith-based scandal management

Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball of Newsweek offered an intriguing theory — which they presented as “theory,” not fact — that there might not have been six reporters who were offered fact that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA before Novak finally picked it up [*]. That bit of speculation, reasonable enough in its context, has now been adopted as an article of faith by those clinging to the hope that the Bush Administration can somehow emerge from the scandal not looking like scum and with none of its major players in prison. (Glenn Reynolds [*], for example, and Sean Fitzpartrick [*].)

But this is an application of Pudd’nhead Wilson’s maxim that “Faith means believing what you know ain’t so”: at least, believing what any reasonable person has reason to be virtually certain isn’t so. There are simply too many facts now out there inconsistent with the Isikoff-Hosenball theory.

For one thing, Clifford May, who writes for NRO, is by some definitions a journalist, though as the former communications director for the Republican National Committee he might be assigned other, less flattering, labels as well. May asserts [*] that he was told of Plame’s identity by a former government official before Novak published. The conclusion that May draws from that fact — that her identity was never really a secret — is of course silly, but I know of no particular reason to doubt the underlying factual claim.

In addition, the latest Washington Post story by Walter Pincus and Mike Allen [*] repeats the assertion in an earlier piece by Allen and Dana Milbank that, before the Novak column appeared,

two top White House officials disclosed Plame’s identity to least six Washington journalists.

The earlier story sourced that assertion to a “senior administration official,” and the new story makes it clear that whoever that was is standing by the story.

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.”

Pincus and Allen report having found that one of those phone calls went to someone on their own newspaper:

On July 12, two days before Novak’s column, a Post reporter was told by an administration official that the White House had not paid attention to the former ambassador’s CIA-sponsored trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction. Plame’s name was never mentioned and the purpose of the disclosure did not appear to be to generate an article, but rather to undermine Wilson’s report.

[Of course, not mentioning her name is neither here nor there; once it’s know that “Joseph Wilson’s wife” works for the CIA, no more than a Google search is need to find “Valerie Plame.” *]

So if you want to believe that Robert Novak was the only reporter told of Plame’s employment by the CIA before Novak told the world about it, you need to believe both that Clifford May was lying, and that either (1) Pincus, Allen, and Milbank, all with sterling reputations, are just making it up, or (2) both a senior administration official and a colleague on the Post are deliberately misleading them. (You also need to ignore Time’s reporting of the matter [*], contemporaneous with Novak’s.)

That’s an awful lot of believing to do in order to avoid the obvious interpretation of the evidence: that the concerted Bush Administration campaign to discredit Joseph Wilson included calls to multiple reporters revealing Plame’s identity as a CIA officer.

No one doubts that additional calls were made by Bush partisans (including, almost certainly, Karl Rove) after the Novak column appeared, drawing reporters’ attention to Novak’s identification of Plame as a CIA “operative.” The defenders of the White House seem to assume that those calls were innocuous, or at least that they weren’t illegal.

That’s exactly backwards.

Those repetitions weren’t innocuous, because a security breach, unlike a pregnancy, is always a matter of degree: the more widely publicized it is, the more likely foreign counterintelligence agencies — not all of which share the resources or the competence of the KGB — are to become aware of it, and to believe it.

And they were illegal, perhaps not under the very tight standards of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act but certainly under the Espionage Act. [*] It is a well-established principle of law that unauthorized revelation is not equivalent to declassification.

So the idea that the whole scandal consisted of one official calling one reporter is simply wrong. One that fact is accepted, we can start a serious discussion about the real topic: what the President should be doing to “get to the bottom of this,” and why he hasn’t been doing it in the three months that have now elapsed since the original crimes were committed.

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: