Valerie Plame: Houston, We Have Confirmation

The Washington Post doesn’t do things by halves. Having studiously ignored the Valerie Plame affair [*] for two months, it now comes in with both feet — a twenty-five-paragraph Page 1 story. [*].

It also comes in with a major newsbeat: a “senior Administration official” who confirms that two “top White House officials” called at least six journalists to tell them the name of an undercover CIA officer, and that they did so “purely and simply for revenge” on her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for his role in revealing the Yellowcake Road fiasco.

I suppose this could be worse for the Administration, but it’s hard to see how.

First, there seems to be no doubt that the leak occurred, that some of Bush’s top people were responsible, and that Plame was undercover. That means that at least two people close to the President are facing potential ten-year prison sentences.

Second, the source for this story (a “senior Administration official” but not a “top White House official,” which probably means either from the CIA or from the Justice Department, more likely the former) refused to identify the two leakers “for the record,” which clearly implies that he did identify them off the record. Since the story mentions Joseph Wilson’s use of Karl Rove’s name, it would be natural for the reporter to have hinted that Rove was not in fact one of the guilty parties, had that been the case. But there is no such hint. Of all the people in the White House, Rove is probably the one Bush can least afford to lose, and the one who gives Bush the least deniability.

Third, the source is clearly prominent enough that any FBI investigation would have to include him. Having told the truth to a reporter, he’s not going to lie to the FBI, which itself would be a crime. That means that the leakers are likely to find themselves, in fairly short order, confronting first the FBI and then a grand jury. (Any thought Ashcroft might have had of stifling this just vanished.)

Fourth, the leakers peddled the story to six other journalists, none of whom took the bait, and any of whom might confirm the identity of the leakers.

Tom Maguire suggested earlier today [*] that the White House simply appoint a fall guy to admit an “innocent mistake” and exit. That isn’t going to do the job now. Not only do they need at least two fall guys; the White House has been on notice about this for two months now, and taken no action to investigate it. If the President was never told about the problem, he’s even more cocooned than I thought. If he was told, and failed to ask direct questions of the small number of people who might have been responsible, then he has to share the culpability.

When this story first broke, I mostly didn’t believe it [*], because outing a covert CIA officer would have been such an intolerable violation of everything this Administration claims to stand for: not just “honor and integrity,” which were obviously mere prolefeed, but putting the national security first and keeping secrets secret.

When the country finds out about this, Bush is going to take a big hit. A year ago, he was a hero, and this might have bounced off. Not now.

If I were Wesley Clark, and eager to relieve any doubts about my partisan loyalties among Democrats, I’d regard this as a golden moment.

[Oooops! Clark has let Howard Dean, who jumped on this story back in July, beat him to the punch. [*] Dean points out that he’d called for resignations months ago, and adds: “No one has been held accountable for this serious action, or for the other instances in which senior officials in this Administration have misled the public and the world about their justifications for war with Iraq. Instead, we see a continuing pattern of deceptive statements. I urge accountability now.”] [This AP story in Monday’s New York Times has a snippet from Clark:

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said a Justice Department probe would be inadequate. “This is too much for (Attorney General) John Ashcroft,” he said. “It strikes right at the heart of our ability to gather intelligence.”]

Update: Kevin Drum, who had the story first among bloggers (David Corn at The Nation did the original reporting), concurs. [*] He’s a tad less rabidly anti-Bush than I am, so I find that reassuring.

Second update (of many to come, no doubt): CBS had the story, rather timidly reported. [*] But it’s a lot better than nothing. Atrios had the link.

Atrios comments: “Pass the effing popcorn.” I agree: this is going to be worth watching. Atrios also makes a highly useful suggestion, which I admit I’d never thought of: MSNBC has a reader rating system for its stories. So if you go here, scroll to the bottom, and click “7,” you can in effect vote to keep them working on this. When you do, you will find that the story has almost 5000 votes, with an average rating of 6.1, putting it second only to a story about how to steal on E-bay but ahead of the woman being spared from stoning in Nigeria.

Third update, Sunday p.m. Body and Soul has a good wrap-up. Some regional papers are reprinting the WaPo story. The New York Times still has nothing in print, but comes in, late and lame, on line. Correction It is in print, below the fold on p. 21, under the jump of the story about coffins for obese people.

The Associated Press finally carries a story [*], featuring Condi Rice’s soothing spin. I predict that Rice will come to regret her repeated descriptions of this incident as “routine.” [Here, from today’s Fox News Sunday, about halfway down.] Yes, this is now a matter for criminal investigation. But how does that relieve the White House of its responsibilities to find the two senior people there who did the dastardly deed and fire them?

The original leak could have been pinned on whoever did it, leaving Bush guilty of nothing worse than bad judgment in the choice of subordinates and failing to maintain a moral atmosphere where such skulduggerly would be unthinkable. (Remember “restoring honor and integrity to the White House”?) But the failure to follow up over more than two months makes everyone from Bush down complicit. (Josh Marshall makes this point.)

And Atrios credits Dwight Meredith for pointing out that knowing and not acting could constitute make people who were not themselves the leakers guilty of misprision of a felony. (For those of you too young to remember Watergate, that’s prounounced “mis-PRIZH-un.”)

Here’s the Rice transcript (emphasis added):

HUME: Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was asked to inquire in Africa about what Saddam Hussein might have been doing there in terms of acquiring nuclear materials, ended up with his wife’s name in the paper as a CIA person. There are now suggestions that the name and her identity and her CIA work had been revealed by the White House. What do you know about that?

RICE: I know nothing of any such White House effort to reveal any of this, and it certainly would not be the way that the president would expect his White House to operate.

My understanding is that, in matters like this, as a matter of routine, a question like this is referred to the Justice Department for appropriate action, and that’s what’s going to be done.

SNOW: Well, when the story came out — his wife’s name is in the paper — was it known in the White House that she was a CIA employee?

RICE: I’m not going to go into this, Tony, because the problem here is this has been referred to the Justice Department. I think that’s the appropriate place…

SNOW: Well, but it is revealing, or it’s important to figure out what the White House reaction was at the time. For years and years and years, for instance, the administrations chased Phillip Agee all around the globe because he had revealed the name of a CIA officer. This is a grave offense, if you have CIA officers.

Was there, at least within the White House, a gasp when somebody said, “Uh oh”? And if so, did the White House take any action, back then in June, when the story appeared?

RICE: Well, it was well known that the president of the United States does not expect the White House to get involved in such things. We will see…

HUME: You mean the revelation of names?

RICE: Anything of this kind. But let’s just see what the Justice Department does. It’s with the appropriate channels now, and we’ll see what the Justice Department — how the Justice Department disposes of it.

SNOW: But there was nobody at the White House at the time who was saying, “Oh, we’ve got a problem here”?

RICE: Tony, I don’t remember any such conversation. But I will say this: The Justice Department gets these things as a matter of routine. They will determine the facts. They will determine what happened, they will determine if anything happened. And they’ll take appropriate action.

Fourth update

I’ve been waiting for someone in the right blogosphere other than Tom Maguire to start paying attention to this. Well, it’s been worth the wait. Daniel Drezner is apoplectic:

What could cause me to switch parties

What was done here was thuggish, malevolent, illegal, and immoral. Whoever pedaled this story to Novak and others, in outing Plame, violated the law and put the lives of Plame’s overseas contacts at risk. Compared to this, all of Clinton’s peccadilloes look like an mildly diverting scene from an Oscar Wilde production. If Rove or other high-ranking White House officials did what’s alleged, then they’ve earned the wrath of God. Or, since God is probably busy, the media firestorm that will undoubtedly erupt.

Let me make this as plain as possible — I was an unpaid advisor for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, and I know and respect some high-ranking people in the administration. And none of that changes the following: if George W. Bush knew about or condoned this kind of White House activity, I wouldn’t just vote against him in 2004 — I’d want to see him impeached. Straight away.

Tacitus, one of the more judicious right-bloggers, concurs.

Meanwhile, Glenn Reynolds and Roger Simon continue to find this just too complicated to understand. It is, if you start with the hypothesis that Bush and the people around him are incapable of stupidly thuggish behavior. Otherwise, it’s really rather simple.

One of the reasons Bush is a much more powerful and effective President than Clinton is that people know that crossing Bush means finding your horse’s head in your bed. Rove is the designated hitter. If in this instance he got carried away, why should we be so surprised? And Drezner makes another point worth pondering: Now that we know what the Bushites are capable of even on “piddling stuff,” all those crazy conspiracy theories seem less far-fetched. Kevin Drum agrees.

Fifth update, Sunday evening Mike Allen in Monday’s Post has more, and it’s astonishing: the White House is maintaining the position that the question of whether top people there committed an aggravated felony concerning national security is nothing the White House needs to worry about:

White House officials said they would turn over phone logs if the Justice Department asked them to. But the aides said Bush has no plans to ask his staff members whether they played a role in revealing the name of an undercover officer who is married to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, one of the most visible critics of Bush’s handling of intelligence about Iraq.


White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the Justice Department has requested no information so far. “Of course, we would always cooperate with the Department of Justice in a matter like this,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of an internal White House investigation, McClellan said, “I’m not aware of any information that has come to our attention beyond the anonymous media sources to suggest there’s anything to White House involvement.”

You read that right: Bush isn’t even going to ask the people who work most closely with him whether they outed a covert CIA officer. Astonishingly, this is being reported as the White House denying the allegations. It’s not denying; it’s stonewalling.

From the very beginning, the White House hasn’t even tried to make it look as if anyone there cared about an activity the senior Bush, in another context, likened to treason.

The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for Bush personally to deny responsibility. (It may be too late already.) Tom Spencer is right: Is there anyone other than Rove for whom the Bush team would absorb this kind of heat?

The Post has more detail on Plame’s official role, confirming everything David Corn had asserted and Joseph Wilson had hinted at:

She is a case officer in the CIA’s clandestine service and works as an analyst on weapons of mass destruction. Novak published her maiden name, Plame, which she had used overseas and has not been using publicly. Intelligence sources said top officials at the agency were very concerned about the disclosure because it could allow foreign intelligence services to track down some of her former contacts and lead to the exposure of agents.

Which suggests a question: Did the long delay between the Novak story and the formal referral to DoJ reflect a decision by the CIA to do as much damage control as possible before the story hit every front page in the world?

The Post story also mentions calls for a special counsel to investigate. It’s going to be very, very hard for Ashcroft to say “no” to that one, I think.

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:

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