The currently operative story

The shape of the Valerie Plame scandal is now becoming clear.

The lines the White House and its friends were telling up until last week — nothing major here, no real security breach, just routine, Valerie Plame wasn’t really covert, Valerie Plame’s covert status was an “open secret,” if something bad happened it must have been very junior people acting without authorization and no one senior in the White House even knew about it until the Justice Department investigation started — have all become “inoperative.”

Reading carefully between the lines of last week’s Isikoff story [*], the nuances of McClellan’s fancy dancing [*], Nicholas Kristof’s column in Friday’s New York Times[*], and Sunday’s Washington Post account by Walter Pincus and Mike Allen [*], one can make out the current White House spin. (Note: I’m not criticizing any of the reporters involved.) Here’s how it seems to go:

Yes, Valerie Plame was operating under “non-official cover,” the very deepest kind, and in that role she had gone abroad to dangerous places and recruited spies for us. But more recently she had been doing a desk job, and the number of people who knew of her status — still a secret classified above “Top Secret” — increased. One of those people told someone in the White House, who told it to two other people in the White House who then told it to Robert Novak and six other reporters.

But whoever revealed the information wasn’t trying to end her career and put her assets’ lives at risk: the goal was merely to denigrate the importance of her husband’s mission to Niger by suggesting (falsely) that it was the product of nepotism. Once the beans had been spilled — which they shouldn’t have been, of course, but accidents happen — then naturally Karl Rove got on the phone and made sure that as many reporters as possible knew about it, in order to carry out the original mission of discrediting Joseph Wilson. In doing so, he wasn’t “revealing classified information,” because it had already been revealed. Anyway, she was never going back “into the cold,” so no real harm was done. No harm, no foul.

When the President became aware of all this, he immediately ordered that steps be taken to “get to the bottom of this,” and accordingly the White House is fully cooperating with the Justice Department. But of course leak investigations never go anywhere, so don’t expect whoever did this to be caught or punished.

Anyone who says otherwise is putting partisan advantage over country. And by the way, this just proves that we have to get tougher on all leaks of classified information.

That story just might hold together. It’s possible that all the checkable facts in it will check out. (For example, whoever told Bush that there was a big problem didn’t put it in writing, so he probably can’t be proven to have known about it before the CIA referral to Justice.)

Even if that’s what happened, it’s a major scandal. Failure by people in the White House to check out a fact as elementary as whether a CIA officer has covert status is unforgiveable. Whatever the effect on Valerie Plame’s career, the damage to our intelligence-gathering capacities is profound. Burning her, and through her the cover company she worked for, probably meant burning some of Plame’s “assets,” (foreign nationals providing information), her colleagues who had used the same cover, and their assets.

Whether any active operations or networks were compromised we’re likely never to know, but the damage is real even if none of her sources are now being tortured by the secret police wherever they come from: the next Pakistani scientist offered a little bit of American cash in return for information is going to have to reckon with the fact that his handler’s absolute, solemn promise never to reveal his identity is subject to being made worthless if that handler’s spouse gets crosswise with someone in the White House. [*]

That being so, the laxity of the White House in dealing with the matter is inexcusable. According to Pincus and Allen, the David Corn story and Wilson’s public complaints had put an end to the telephone-call offensive by the third week of July. And yet the decision to “get to the bottom of this” wasn’t made until late September.

And the notion that the follow-up phone calls from the White House, including almost certainly from Karl Rove personally, were harmless because they only deal with information already revealed by someone else in the White House not only truly breathtaking in its moral audacity, it’s also a loser in purely legal terms. Information does not stop being classified because someone else improperly reveals it.

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