Once more, for the slow learners

Valerie Plame Wilson’s name wasn’t a secret. Her marriage wasn’t a secret. Her work for the CIA was a secret. Any more questions?

… such as Glenn Reynolds.

1. The name “Valerie Plame” was not a secret. Apparently, when she worked under non-official cover (NOC), pretending to be an energy consultant for a CIA front firm called Bewster-Jennings, she used her real name. The record so far doesn’t tell us why, but it’s easy to see one big advantage of using her real name: it made her “legend” 100% checkable. That is, there really was a Valerie Plame who grew up where she claimed to have grown up and went to school where she claimed to have gone to school.

2. Valerie Plame’s marriage to Joseph Wilson was not a secret. Nor was either the marriage or making the marriage public a secrity breach. There’s no inconsistency between being an international energy consultant and being married to a former ambassador. Most ambassadors’ wives are not CIA officers.

3. Therefore it is nonsense to say that the mention of Joseph Wilson’s marriage to “the former Valerie Plame” entry in his Who’s Who listing is “not consistent” with her having been a NOC (the deepest sort of CIA cover). Given that many people knew both of them before they were married, Joseph Wilson’s wife’s maiden name couldn’t be kept secret, and any attemt to conceal, as by omitting it from a Who’s Who entry where it naturally belonged, would simply have helped draw attention to it.

The Who’s Who listing didn’t tell our enemies anything they didn’t know, and it doesn’t tell us anything about Valerie Plame Wilson’s undercover status. It’s a null event, useful only as a red herring for those who don’t want to believe that the Bush White House burned a CIA officer.

4. The fact that Valerie Plame Wilson worked for the CIA was a secret. That’s why the paragraph mentioning it in the State Department memo was labeled SECRET NOFORN, meaning that revealing that information could cause severe damage to the national security and that the information should not be shared with any foreign national, even someone with a security clearance from one of our allies.

5. When Karl Rove told Matt Cooper that “Wilson’s wife works for the CIA,” he conveyed all the information an alert foreign intelligence agency would have needed to determine that the “energy consultant” Valerie Plame was in fact a spy.

6. But not all foreign inteligence agencies are alert all the time. So Bob Novak decided to make it easy for them by referring to Valerie Wilson by her maiden name, which is the name she used as an “energy consultant.”

7. Once someone knew that “Valerie Plame” and “CIA officer” described the same person, it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out that Brewster-Jennings was a CIA front. But once again Novak — after he had been criticized for publicizing Valerie Plame Wilson’s connection with the CIA — decided to make sure, by publishing the name of the firm as well.

Update I have to take back the “slow learner” snark. A reader known to me to be highly intelligent, and with no ideological interest in seeing Rove get off, writes:

I’ve seen it argued that it was not a secret that Plame worked for the CIA but that her NOC status was secret; one could for example see her driving to Langley every day.

Joseph Wilson’s wife worked, under NOC, as Valerie Plame. Once you knew that “Valerie Plame” names a CIA employee, then it’s obvious that “Valerie Plame, energy consultant” was just a cover story, and that she was in fact a spy. There’s no separate secret about her being undercover; what “undercover” means is that the fact of her working for the CIA was a secret.

Yes, someone doing survelliance at Langley might have gotten her picture, and then done the additional work to link that picture with “Valerie Plame.” But that’s not the same as having Novak publish the fact to the world.

Being burned isn’t like being pregnant: it’s possible to a a little bit burned, or partially burned, or totally burned. That’s because it’s not the case that everyone knows what anyone knows, or that everyone has found, or discovered all of the implications of, publicly available information. Plame was a little bit burned by Ames; she was totally burned by the White House, via Novak.

All of this is obvious to me, but after all I’ve devoted a completely unreasonable amount of attention to the story. It was unfair of me to attribute to folly or ill-will the effects of simple ignorance.

It was not, however, unfair to expect that someone with a large audience should take the time to discover what the experts know before imposing the fruits of his ignorance on 100,000 readers, or that he should take it back once his error is pointed out.

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