Not treason

Karl Rove is despicable, unpatriotic, and criminal. But he isn’t a traitor.

Some folks who ought to know better, and others who clearly don’t know any better, have been tossing around the terms “treason” and “traitor” in connection with the White House efforts to burn Valerie Plame as a CIA officer.

Get a grip, people!

What Rove and his buddies did was despicable. It was unpatriotic. More likely than not, it was even criminal. But it wasn’t “treason,” and Karl Rove isn’t a “traitor,” either in plain English or in law.

In plain English, a traitor is someone who, for whatever reason, fights for or otherwise helps an enemy foreign power making war, or preparing to make war, on his country. Sometimes, it’s for money, as with Hansen and Ames. Sometimes it’s out of personal pique, as in the case of Benedict Arnold. Sometimes it’s ideological, as with the Rosenbergs.

There are borderline cases where someone is working for a not-yet-enemy or an undeclared enemy, for example in the Cold War cases cited above, or Prescott Bush and George Herbert Walker helping to finance the Nazi war machine at a time when the Nazis weren’t actually at war with the U.S., or the Pinochet suppporters here who helped Pinochet’s secret police cover up their murder of an Ameican citizen on the streets of our capital, or Jim Baker and the other high-priced lawyers working for the Saudis as the Saudis financed terrorist “asymmetric warfare” against the U.S.

But the basic idea is deliberately working for the enemies of one’s country. Merely doing something that “objectively” helps a hostile foreign power isn’t treason.

The Framers, reacting to a long and ugly English history of using “treason” as a catchall charge to justify judicial murder, defined the crime as “Making war on the United States or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” That definition is often misrepresented by eliding out the “making war … or adhering” phrase, as if anything that gave aid to the enemy was automatically treasonable.

Yes, damaging our intelligence capability with respect to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction gave aid and comfort to our enemies, declared and undeclared. But unless it was done out of “adherence” to them, it simply wasn’t treason.

I’m not just playing with words here. It’s an important fact about our current situation that no politically significant body of opinion in the United States wants the Islamic fundamentalist vision of the world to prevail.

In the run-up to World War II, there was substantial pro-Nazi sentiment in the U.S. (FDR, to his credit, didn’t choose to exploit that fact once war had broken out, and the outbreak of war largely destroyed that sentiment.) During the Cold War — especially in its earliest phases, when the memory of the Grand Alliance that won World War II was the strongest — there was significant pro-Soviet sentiment in the U.S. Both Naziism and Communism had features that important groups of Americans strongly admired.

By contrast, outside the politically impotent Muslim community, al Qaeda has precisly zero support, or even sympathy, in the U.S. Even the Christian fundamentalists whose worldview is in some important ways similar to that of Wahhabism don’t feel any emotional bond with Islamic fundamentalism. And those who have sold out for Saudi money don’t want the terrorists to win, any more than the Saudi ruling family does.

That national unity is a great asset in what is likely to be a long period of terrorist threats and occasional terrorist actions. One of the reasons I so despise Karl Rove and his puppet President is their willingness to squander that asset by pretending for political gain that their opponents somehow sympathize with the enemy.

We don’t. Neither do they. They may forget that fact, or pretend to, but we shouldn’t.

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: