Motive in the Plame affair

What did Karl Rove expect to get out of outing a CIA officer?

Professor Bainbridge inquires, reasonably, what might have motivated the White House to “out” a CIA officer.

Two theories seem to fit the facts. Let’s call them the Keystone Kops theory and the Horse’s Head theory.

The Keystone Kops theory holds that Rove and his friends didn’t know that Valerie Plame Wilson was covert. All they wanted to do, on this theory, was mildly embarrass Joseph Wilson by subtly suggesting that he was the sort of girly-man who depended on his wife’s help to get an assignment. In addition, since they had to convince people that Wilson was unqualified and that his conclusions should therefore be ignored, they had to come up with a plausible answer for the obvious question: If Wilson wasn’t qualified, why did the CIA send him? Their proposed answer was “nepotism.”

Still on this theory, when the David Corn column made them aware that they had committed what was certainly a blunder and quite possibly a serious crime (the Espionage Act criminalizes handing out classified information with “reason to believe” that the information you’re giving out might damage the United States, a standard less demanding than actual knowledge), they decided to try to cover it up. That would have been natural in an Administration that never admits error, let along wrongdoing.

The “Horse’s Head” theory is much nastier. On this account, since Joseph Wilson had made trouble it became Administration policy to damage him in every way possible, and wrecking his wife’s career and destroying her life’s work was as good a way as any. As Kevin Drum puts it, “outing Plame might very well have been deliberate, a way of sending a very strong message that this administration was not to be [mess]ed with.”

My preference is for the Keystone Kops theory. It’s not that I doubt that Karl Rove is capable of profound evil — this is the man who used John McCain’s adoption of a Bangaladeshi orphan to spread the word in South Carolina that McCain was the father of an biracial bastard — but I couldn’t see how he could have justified outing a CIA officer to himself or his friends. No matter how they look to you and me, the folks in the White House think that they’re patriots, and deliberately revealing the identity of a NOC would have been a grossly and obviously unpatriotic thing to do.

So — putting aside the possibility that the White House shared the pathological hatred of the CIA as an institution that characterized the extreme parts of Red Blogistan during the election season — it seems to me that the Keystone Kops theory is the least hypothesis: a hideous mistake in the course of petty political infighting, compounded by a cover-up.

Update A reader points out that my preference for the Keystone Kops theory instantiates Hanlon’s Law: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Actually, when dealing with Rove & Co. any explanation involving malice starts with surface plausibility, and any explanation involving a political misake (as oppposed to a policy mistake) starts trading at a discount In this case, though, the particularly unpatriotic form of malice that would have had to be involved is hard to believe, so stupidity looks to me like the better bet.

Update This press release from Accuracy in Media claims that Joseph DeGenova — that’s Mr. Victoria Toensing — is pushing the full lunatic line about Wilson’s mission as a “covert operation” by the CIA against the Bush Administration.

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: