Looks like a big one

Most of the reasons I gave last night for doubting the Valerie Plame story have dissolved in the morning light.

We don’t have to rely on the Nation and Novak; the Time story I linked to (but, obviously, hadn’t read carefully enough) says that “officials” had identified Plame as “a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” So we still have only Novak’s word on “senior officials,” but that the information about Plame’s status was revealed to the press as part of an Administration campaign to discredit her husband is no longer subject to reasonable doubt.

Moreover, the fact that the piece was in Time and there’s been no denial so far from the White House is pretty conclusive. Whoever planted that story surely read it closely.

Moreover, Tom Spencer and Atrios have both picked it up, and I’ve had some email traffic this morning. If someone out there knew of a reason to disbelieve this, I think I would have heard it by now.

So I’m left with no better reason for doubting the story than not wanting to believe it. Not good enough.

I suppose it’s barely conceivable that Corn and Novak had it wrong, and that Plame is actually an open CIA employee rather than an operative. That would make the whole story go away. But that fact is so easily checkable that I would have expected to see a correction by now.

So the remaining question is whether Plame is, or is not, actually a CIA asset. For once, the Administration would be much better off if it turned out to have been lying; if the assertion that Plame was a spook is the truth, and if that was supposed to be a secret, someone may very well go to prison for it. [Correction: the law in question carries a ten-year, not a five-year, maximum penalty.]

But I’m having trouble telling myself a story where the claim about her undercover status turns out to be false: if she weren’t a CIA asset she’d have no reason not to say so, loudly. So you have to guess for now that she is (or was until her cover was blown).

On that hypothesis, this looks to me like an Iran/Contra-sized scandal.

Tenet is in an impossible position. He surely knows by now that the story was leaked, and quite possibly even who leaked it or was responsible for its being leaked. And of course he knows whether Plame works for the Company or not. If she does, in an undercover status, and if Tenet knows that someone leaked that to the press, he needs to pick up the phone and talk to Robert Mueller at the FBI. Now.

And if I were Senator Robert Graham, I’d be on the phone to George Tenet. Now.

And if I were Bill Keller, or the boss of any other major media outfit, I’d want to have someone on top of this. Now.

I said it and meant it: I wanted, and want, this not to be true. But if it is true, heads must roll.

Update One of my conservative friends suggests the only innocent explanation I’ve heard so far: that Plame may do some unclassified work for the CIA rather then being a spy. That would suggest pretty appalling laxity on the part of Novak, Corn, and the reporters for Time. And if it were true, then Wilson’s comment about this being “the stuff of Aldrich Ames” would be hard to parse.

Still, it’s not impossible. It is, however, easy to check, if you’re a reporter rather than merely a blogger.

Another reader suggests that this is part of a larger war between the White House and the CIA, a war that, my reader says, has just gone nuclear with Tenet fingering someone senior in the White House (either Cheney or Rice) as having been the one who insisted on leaving the yellowcake story in the State of the Union address. That same reader points me to this column by Noah Myerson in the Washington Post, which puts the issue in terms of whether the policymakers get to dictate the facts to the intelligence agencies. (t’s really quite striking how postmodern some of these folks are. Newt Gingrich, like the editors of the Wall Street Journal, thinks that intelligence gathering should operate on the rule “We’ve made up our minds; don’t confuse us with the facts.”)

Of course they don’t really think that except when their guys are in charge. But, in a larger sense, they don’t really think anything, except that they’d like to stay in power. In the immortal words of W.C. Fields, “A man has to believe something. And I believe I’ll have another drink.”

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