What the CIA Spokesman Should Have Said to Novak

There’s been lots of discussion what the CIA spokesman told, or didn’t tell, Robert Novak before his first column ran. It’s has been suggested that, by confirming her relationship with the agency to Novak and to Time, the CIA somehow acknowledged that her role wasn’t really very secret. It’s even been suggested that, since the spokesman asked Novak not to print her connection with the Agency but didn’t make it (by his account) very emphatic, the government wasn’t taking the “active measures” to keep identity secret required to trigger the criminal penalties of the IIPA.

Bruce R. of Flit has what seems to me the best analysis of this published so far [*]. I was slow in finding it, but here it is:

Say you’re PR. A journalist calls you and asks you to confirm or deny someone works for your organization that you don’t want the world to know about. You have, basically, three choices.

1. “No she doesn’t.” Upshot: journalist runs story saying he said-they said: “My sources tell me the Ambassador’s wife works for the agency, but, the agency denies it.”

2. “We can neither confirm nor deny.” Upshot: journalist runs story saying you had nothing to say. “My sources say bla bla, the agency had no comment.”

3. “Yes she works for us, please don’t use her name.” This is, in fact, what the CIA said, and that Novak ignored. The hope is that you can turn off that part of the story entirely, with an appeal to the journalist’s conscience or patriotism. This works surprisingly often.

You can’t logically say, “whether she works for us or not, please don’t use her name.” No journalist could ever leave it at that. If you want to put stipulations on the use of her name, you need to acknowledge you have some relationship with the person in doing so. Nor, unless you fully trust the journalist, can you dare go into more specifics. “Yes, she’s worked for us as a covert analyst for over 20 years, she worked on this file and that file, please don’t use her name, because the risk is you’ll compromise this and that.”

If the journalist isn’t willing to stop at “please don’t use her name” in and of itself, then they can’t be trusted to keep anything else you tell them secret either. Novak is a case in point: he was asked to keep secret and he blabbed anyway. If the PR officer involved had said anything else that was classified info, it’s reasonable to assume now that Novak could well have put that in his article, too.

Short of telling Novak’s sources that they’d be liable for prosecution if he went with the article (which would have been a good approach in retrospect) CIA PR went by-the-book on “how to try to squelch a story” on this one. They are in no way responsible for the leak in question.

Now, I’m not certain that Bruce R. is entirely correct. In hindsight, I think the Agency wishes that the spokesman had said something like: “The relationship between Joseph Wilson’s wife and the Agency is such that it absolutely, positively must never be mentioned or hinted at, orally or in print. Please tell your source to shut his flapping yap. National security and people’s lives are at stake. Sorry, I can’t say anything more. But please don’t screw us on this one.”

But the fact that I can, in the calm of my study, imagine something stronger to say than apparently was actually said doesn’t mean that the CIA was somehow complicit in letting Plame’s identity get 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