What Did They Know, and When Did They Know it?

Daniel Drezner and Brad DeLong have had an exchange about Brad’s assertion that the Bush White House, whatever the culpability of the individuals in it, collectively knew in July that someone had illegally revealed the identity of a covert intelligence officer and that there was evidence that “someone” was high up in the administration, and did nothing to try to identify and punish whoever that was until the Justice Department inquiry forced the matter onto the front page.

I have the greatest respect for Dan, both for the quality of his writings generally and for the intellectual honesty with which he has been confronting this affair, involving as it does potentially serious charges of misconduct against an administration with whose policy goals he, unlike Brad or me, is in substantial sympathy. But in this case it seems to me that Brad is clearly right.

There are two reasons to believe that. First, it wouldn’t have been nearly as invisible to them as it was to the public; things were happening, in the media, on Capitol Hill, and in the White House press office, that could not have gone unnoticed. Second if the White House had been innocent in the affair, and all the attacks therefore false, the false attacks would have given them a great opportunity for counterattacks on targets they care about: Wilson, Krugman, Dean, Schumer, and Hillary. That would have created an incentive for people inside the White House to ferret out the truth.

Here’s the timeline:

The Novak story and the Time story came out the same week. Both were obvious results of White House plants: the Time story said as much. The WaPo’s “senior Administration official” says six other reporters were called by “two top White House officials” before the Novak thing appeared. So whoever planted it would be looking for reaction.

[Footnote: After ABC’s The Note and other folks noticed a slight verbal variation between Mike Allen’s first and subsequent accounts, he has repeated his original formulation word for word [*]. So Allen is sticking with his account of what his source told him, and I see no reason to doubt him.]

Even without that, since both stories specifically mentioned the White House, they would have shown up in the daily clips. Not everyone reads the whole clip file every day, but someone reads all of it and lots of people read a little of it. What’s in the clips is “common knowledge.” Novak isn’t a major journalist in my eyes, but he’s a player in Republican circles. Time is Time. So those stories didn’t go unread or un-discussed.

As to the Nation, I bet it’s not widely read in the White House. But it, too, would have made the clips, and it involves a charge about a very serious crime. Moreover, since it’s clear that they were on a tear about Wilson, someone in the WH “strategery” group was doing a daily Lexis/Nexis search for Wilson’s name, which would have turned up the Corn piece. If Wilson, whom they were attacking, had made a reckless charge to Corn about exposing his wife’s identity when her identity was in fact no secret, that would have been another vulnerability for Wilson, and worth pursuing.

Then Howard Dean demanded an answer. If Dean was right, they had trouble. If Dean was wrong, they could clobber him with it. Either way, the oppo research guys at the RNC and inside the White House had to be aware of it, and inquire about it. If it turned out she was a file clerk or a press officer, they could make Dean look like a complete monkey. They wouldn’t have to do it in their own name: just sic the Washington Times on it, or Novak himself. Of course, they might want to wait until Dean had the nomination before going with it — no point weakening your weakest opponent — but they’d want to check the story out right away to see how much ammunition Dean had just handed them.

Then Krugman had a column, making very harsh charges. No one can pretend that Krugman hasn’t managed to get under the skin of the Bush Administration. Krugman’s column, and Luskin’s attack on Krugman for it at NRO, would have been noticed: assuming, that is, that Luskin’s attack wasn’t itself the product of a White House plant.

On July 22 Newsday had a story, sourced to “intelligence officials,” that Plame was undercover. That was enough to force even Luskin into a graceless and half-hearted retraction. (Ten weeks later, the defenders of the White House were still insisting that we didn’t know whether Plame’s status was secret or not.) Assume you’re inside the White House, and innocent. Wouldn’t you have someone call the CIA and ask why they’re throwing spitballs at the White House?

The same day, a reporter asked a question of Scott McClellan at the daily briefing, which he dodged by saying it was impossible to track down anonymous-source stories. (A proposition true in general and obviously false in this case, given the very limited number of “senior Administration officials” in a position to have known the central facts.) The question to McClellan wasn’t a surprise to him; Newsday reports having called Claire Buchan before its story ran and being bucked over to the NSC staff, which didn’t respond. That question was repeated a few days later, and he dodged again. (An alert commentator of Dan Drezner’s points out that McClellan’s first answer starts “I’m glad you asked that”: i.e., it was indeed a question he was prepped for.)

How likely is it that McClellan never checked around to see if anyone had trouble on this and to get guidance about what he could and couldn’t say? His readiness with an answer the first time, and its identity with his answer the second time, suggests that he had briefed himself on the issue beforehand, as he naturally would have when Buchan told him about the Newsday inquiry. Is it really conceivable that by then someone at the top hadn’t become aware of the matter? How many times a week does someone credibly accuse two senior administration officials, in print, of committing aggravated felonies?

The Newsday story was followed by demands for investigation from various Senators, including Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, demands which both whoever was following the newspapers, and the White House Congressional Affairs office, must have been aware of. (A Republican congressman told The Hill that no law had been broken; hadn’t he checked with someone first?)

If the charges were bogus, Schumer in particular was a sitting duck. And if they were bogus — if, in particular, Plame wasn’t covert — there was no problem about discussing them in public. So if you’re Rove or Card and you see this, and you weren’t in fact involved and are confident none of your colleagues was, or that they were but it was OK because she was overt, the first thing you do is call someone in Condi’s shop and ask them to check with the CIA about whether Plame was undercover or not. If not, you go to town: again, through intermediaries.

What that means is that any of Rove’s people, or Card’s, wouldn’t have been afraid to bring the boss bad news: potentially, it was absolutely terrific news, unless they already knew she was covert. And there would have been no way to figure out whether your enmies had just dealt you a winning hand without turning up the ugly truth: that Plame was about as undercover as anyone can be, and that your guys had put the word out. (Whether the two top officials who made the initial phone calls, or whoever encouraged them to do so, knew when they made the calls that her identity was a secret is a different question, one likely to be considered by a twelve-person focus group.)

Moreover, we now know that the CIA made an informal referral to DoJ almost immediately after the Novak column appeared. How likely is it that no one at the CIA or DoJ ever mentioned this to anyone at the White House? Surely anything from either of those sources would have gotten someone’s undivided attention.

(Dan points to a New York Times story in which Tenet doesn’t mention the Plame affair to Bush at a meeting last week. First, that story clearly comes from Andy Card, so it reflects WH spin. Second, that Tenet didn’t mention it to the President face-to-face now doesn’t mean that no one on his staff gave anyone in the White House a polite heads-up eleven weeks ago. Bringing it up now would be rather insulting; not giving a heads-up back then would have been a hostile act. I would say that the lack of hostility between Bush and Tenet, if that is the case, is more supportive of the idea that the CIA did warn the White House than of the idea that it didn’t.)

Moreover, the latest story from Newsweek has a source close to Karl Rove (or maybe it’s Rove himself on background) denying that he’d told Chris Matthews in the days immediately after the Novak column that “Joe Wilson’s wife is fair game,” but confirming that he Rove told Matthews that “it was reasonable to discuss who sent Wilson to Niger.”

[Note to reporters and other investigators: If you want to make someone confirm a guess, accuse him of having done something awful — worse than your guess — in a question that assumes as its basis the charge you’re looking to confirm, and hope that he will give you his confession to the lesser charge as part of his exculpation on the greater one. I bet that’s how Novak mousetrapped some poor CIA spokesgeek into confirming Plame’s employment: He probably asked, “Is it true that Joseph Wilson’s wife picked him for the assignment?” and the victim said, “No, she just recruited him after he’d already been picked.” Presto! He has the confirmation he wanted. The gull never knows he’s given anything away because Novak’s question assumed that Plame worked for the Agency. Avoiding that sort of trap is much harder than it looks. Ask anyone who has used it, or had it used on him. I’ve been on both sides of this myself, and I can tell you the questioner has all the advantages.]

So Rove certainly knew about the story back then, unless you want to think that Isikoff — last seen chasing a semen-stained dress — has now joined in a conspiracy to manufacture a conversation that never happened.

It remains possible that Bush himself didn’t know about the problem. His habit of being briefed orally on the news rather than reading it for himself leaves him open to a dangerous degree of insulation from the real world. [*] But if he was kept in the dark, it could only be because everyone around him knew that the story was nothing but bad news for the administration, which would have been true only if everyone around him knew that Valerie Plame’s identity was, in fact, a closely-guarded secret.

What all that means, to me, is that the White House, though not necessarily the President personally, showed guilty knowledge of this affair nearly from its inception. So far, they’ve done fairly well at spreading the perception that, as soon as they learned about the problem, they acted to “get to the bottom of it.” That has worked because the laxity of the mass media didn’t bring this to the public’s attention until eleven weeks after it started, and of course the media have little incentive now to remind us that the White House was keeping silent at the same time they were.

This is not Watergate, with the media generically pursuing and the White House defending. Reputationally, they’re in this together. If the story can be made to seem as if it started at the end of September, the media and the President can both look good. But if the public recognizes that it started in mid-July, and the media and the White House both worked hard to keep it from coming to light until the bureaucrats forced it onto the front pages, they both look bad.

As, I am convinced, they deserve to.

Update Dan updates. He and I are largely in agreement. That’s a relief. There are some people I respect enough so that when I strongly disagree with them I have the sense that I haven’t full grasped the issue, and he’s one of them.

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

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