Why is Glenn Reynolds Giving Advice About a Cover-Up?

Glenn Reynolds has a post [*] that reveals more about his motives than perhaps he intended.

He recommends subpoenaing reporters as part of the Plame leak investigation in order to (1) deflect criticism from the White House; (2) make it hard for the media to criticize Bush; and (3) discourage future leaks of classified information.

Note that this assumes that the choice about whether to supoena reporters, and about how to conduct the investigation generally, rests with the White House. Perhaps it does, but it’s not supposed to. The claim that it does, or at least that the White House is in a position to exert undue influence, is exactly the basis for the demand that a special counsel be appointed.

Note further that it assumes that the goal of the White House is to prevent media coverage of the scandal. That’s true, but its truth implies that the White House believes that having the public understand what actually happened in this case will be bad for Mr. Bush’s re-election prospects. That, too, is true, and the White House is right to think so.

But, all that being true, why is Glenn on their side in all this?

Glenn suggests that the White House turn the tables on the media, making their concerns look like “special pleading, which it is”: “If you leak this you’re a traitor, but if we publish it, we’re being great Americans,” won’t wash.

Two things to note about this. First, on the evidence, six out of seven media outlets offered the Plame tidbit turned it down. Only Robert Novak, a right-wing commentator, picked it up. So the “media,” on average, were much more respectful of the needs of national security in this case than was the White House. Second, the law, signed by President Reagan, specifically covers the conduct of officials and specifically excludes the conduct of those to whom they make illegal revelations. Doesn’t the distinction between criminal behavior and lawful behavior mean anything to Professor Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School?

As to discouraging leaks, I can see why that’s a good thing from the White House perspective, but not why it’s a good thing from a national perspective. Not all leaks of classified information are bad, and a libertarian like Glenn, always prepared to believe the worst about “government,” ought to be especially worried about giving political officials even more power to decide what the public may and may not know.

This story is not about “leaks” generically. That’s merely the White House spin on it. [*] This story is about a specific crime: revealing the identity of a covert intelligence officer. Unlike leaks of policy-relevant facts, revealing the identities of intelligence officers almost never serves any valid public need to know, and even when it does the damage inflicted, on the individual named and on the national security, is simply too great to tolerate.

But here’s the most troublesome question, to those of us who have differed with Glenn in the past but thought he was basically a patriot and a lover of liberty, and that we were therefore basically on the same side:

Now that we know that a serious crime was committed by people high up in the White House — a crime damaging to the national security, engaged in as a shoddy act of vicarious revenge on the wife of someone who had displeased them — why, in that situation, is Glenn giving advice to the Bush team on how to cover it up?

Look: It’s never easy to deal with a fact that a politician whose general policy views you support, and whom you admire personally, has done, or has allowed the people close to him to do, something horrible. (Anyone who ever wore, as I once did, a saxophone lapel pin will remember.) But the contrast between Glenn’s reaction to this and Dan Drezner’s or Tom Maguire’s is pretty stark.

Drezner and Maguire would prefer to believe that the facts don’t implicate the President, even if by now it’s clear they implicate people close to him, and they argue for interpretations of the facts favorable, rather than unfavorable, to that belief. Good. That helps keep the rest of us honest. But that’s very different from wanting (and even helping), whoever did or ordered or abetted this foul deed or its coverup, to get away with 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