Sunday, October 12, 2003

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What Nicholas Kristoff said

Of all the New York Times op-ed columnists, I've found Nicholas Kristoff to be the most unpredictable. I disagree with Bob Herbert 99% of the time, Krugman and Dowd 75% of the time, Brooks and Friedman only 33% of the time. Kristoff is at the 50% level -- I either think he's hit the nail on the head or I find him to be dead wrong.

Yesterday he hit the nail on the head:

[M]y sense is that Democrats exaggerate the damage to Mrs. Wilson's career and to her personal security, while Republicans vastly play down the enormity of the security breach and the danger to the assets she worked with....

All in all, I think the Democrats are engaging in hyperbole when they describe the White House as having put Mrs. Wilson's life in danger and destroyed her career; her days skulking along the back alleys of cities like Beirut and Algiers were already mostly over.

Moreover, the Democrats cheapen the debate with calls, at the very beginning of the process, for a special counsel to investigate the White House. Hillary Rodham Clinton knows better than anyone how destructive and distracting a special counsel investigation can be, interfering with the basic task of governing, and it's sad to see her display the same pusillanimous partisanship that Republicans showed just a few years ago.

If Democrats have politicized the scandal and exaggerated it, Republicans have inexcusably tried to whitewash it. The leak risked the security of all operatives who had used Brewster-Jennings as cover, as well as of all assets ever seen with Mrs. Wilson. Unwitting sources will now realize that they were supplying the C.I.A. with information, and even real agents may fear exposure and vanish.

C.I.A. veterans are seething, and rightly so, at the betrayal by their own government. Larry Johnson, who entered the agency at the same time as Mrs. Wilson, is a Republican who voted for President Bush — and he's so enraged that he compares the administration leaker to the spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.

"Here's a woman who put her life on the line," Mr. Johnson said. "But unlike a Navy seal or a marine, she didn't have a gun to fight back. All she had to protect her was her cover."...

This scandal leaves everybody stinking.

Indeed (link via Tom Maguire).

UPDATE: Today's Washington Post story has more info. Most important, the key source behind September's revelations makes a new appearance:

On July 7, the White House admitted it had been a mistake to include the 16 words about uranium in Bush's State of the Union speech. Four days later, with the controversy dominating the airwaves and drowning out the messages Bush intended to send during his trip in Africa, CIA Director George J. Tenet took public blame for failing to have the sentence removed.

That same week, two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to least six Washington journalists, an administration official told The Post for an article published Sept. 28. The source elaborated on the conversations last week, saying that officials brought up Plame as part of their broader case against Wilson.

"It was unsolicited," the source said. "They were pushing back. They used everything they had."

Novak has said he began interviewing Bush officials about Wilson shortly after July 6, asking why such an outspoken Bush policy critic was picked for the Niger mission. Novak reported that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA on weapons of mass destruction and that she was the person who suggested Wilson for the job.

Officials have said Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon and National Security Council senior director for African affairs, was not chosen because of his wife.

On July 12, two days before Novak's column, a Post reporter was told by an administration official that the White House had not paid attention to the former ambassador's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction. Plame's name was never mentioned and the purpose of the disclosure did not appear to be to generate an article, but rather to undermine Wilson's report.

After Novak's column appeared, several high-profile reporters told Wilson that they had received calls from White House officials drawing attention to his wife's role. Andrea Mitchell of NBC News said she received one of those calls.

Josh Marshall and Tom Maguire have already weighed in. My two cents:

  • Does this story puncture the Newsweek thesis that the original leak was inadvertent? Yes and no. It does seem that there was an orchestrated campaign to discredit Wilson's version of events, and one element of that campaign was to suggest that nepotism was behind the decision to dispatch Wilson to Niger. So the idea that the Novak leak was inadvertent and the White House jumped on the vandwagon afterwards falls apart.

  • At the same time, it does not seem like whoever leaked the story intentionally wanted to out Plame's status. The obvious taget was Wilson -- the link to his wife was the nepotism angle. As Marshall puts it:

    The White House was at war with Joe Wilson. And they were using everything in their arsenal to take him down. The authors of the piece seem to have spoken to “administration sources” who told them that the motive for naming Plame wasn’t retaliation but an effort to destroy Wilson’s credibility and thus get reporters to ignore him. That theory of the crime, shall we say, seems to conflict with the account of the administration official who told the Post on he September 28th that the calls were “meant purely and simply for revenge.”

    So, this doesn't change my "nasty and partisan, but not intentional or malevolent" theory of events.

  • I've said nary a word about the Democratic demand for a special prosecutor because I thought it besides the point. But here's what Marshall has to say about the investigation so far:

    I’m all for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate this case. It seems like a textbook example of an inquiry that calls for one.

    But I haven’t made too big a point of it because I think that once a full-scale criminal probe gets underway its really not that easy to control. Once lawyers and FBI agents and depositions and the rest of it get involved, these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that the White House will eventually rue the day the president didn’t just do the right thing on day one: find the culprits, fire them and move on.

    Indeed again.

    posted by Dan on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM


    Kristof also said that media commentary on the Plame Game was giving a pass to Novak, who exercised neither the care he has in reporting on many other subjects nor the discretion other reporters showed about blowing a CIA employee's cover. Kristof is right about this as well.

    Leaving questions of right and wrong aside for the moment, this whole affair is stupid on many levels. Wilson, first of all, is an inconvenient but minor critic. The attempt to intimidate him was made after his most embarrassing disclosures were printed in The New York Times. The "nepotism" charge would carry weight if Wilson owed a job or perk to Plame, but even the mystery men in the administration only claimed she suggested Wilson go to Niger (the CIA denied this), a trip for which he did not get paid to a place not high on anyone's list of fun destinations. What was the point of trying to alert the press to his connection to Plame and to Plame's role at the CIA? To intimidate and generally to be bad, sure. But to what end?

    posted by: Zathras on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    Nepotism? This White House wants to charge Wilson with nepotism? Is there anyone inside the Beltway (of any party) with brains and integrity?

    posted by: wol on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    Concerning the leak,

    To understand such behavior it has to be put into the context of the entire WH operation. From day one this President has used aides and proxies to do three things: 1) Promise rosy scenarios 2) Under-deliver said scenarioes 3) Exercise political PR management by discrediting policy opponents and critics.

    Seen in this light, what happenned was hideously poorly thought out but pretty much par for the course - putting in a new light the hypothetical attributed comment of Rove of Plame being "fair game". He may have merely been repeating aloud the prevailing consensus and sentiment of the rolling PR management.

    People, including me, used to roll their eyes at the degree of wonkiness regarding Clintonian WH policy making. The debacle of health care under Hillary which set back the health care debate at least a decade is a case in point. Sometimes they were completely out of touch with their constituency with all their high flying mumbo jumbo.

    Now I sigh and wish for the days of wonkiness back. These guys Bush has couldn't find their behinds with both hands, and if one of em asked for some toilet paper their buddy would throw a hand grenade into the stall. Who knew ideology would create such blinders?

    posted by: Oldman on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]


    I guess the Tulia drug raids were ok with you. Or maybe you just didn't like Herbert bringing them to everyone's attention the way he did.

    posted by: Chun the Unavoidable on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    The facts that Kristoff appears to be bringing out are fascinating: he says, among other things, that Aldrich Ames is thought to have burned Plame as a covert employee, and she was taken off covert status at that time. He also says she was moving into "management" (oh, golly. Dilbert with cloaks and daggers.). So as the little pieces come out, the puzzle seems to point to less likelihood that Plame was covert by any legal definition within well over 5 years of the time she was linked to Wilson's trip.

    The picture that I think is coming out is:

    1. It appears to have been general knowledge, at least among a certain level of Washington insiders, that Plame worked for the CIA.

    2. It appears that the CIA moved her out of covert work around the time of the Aldrich Ames case, and at best she was working under embassy cover after that time.

    3. However, it also appears that she was "mamagement", not an overseas or covert employee of any type, for some time prior to the Wilson issue.

    4. The identity of the "leakers" is less and less clear, and it appears that the story is built, and continues to grow, based on competing leaks. The original source of the Plame-chose-Wilson-for-the-trip story may have come from CIA people at the White House.

    5. The biggest damage Kristoff sees from the case is the burning of "Brewster-Whoosis", but the best info we have is from a White House source that says the front company "may be defunct". In any case, for someone to identify the firm as an employer on a campaign donor list, when there seems to have been some public knowledge of her CIA status, seems obtuse, reckless, or something. Since, as Kristoff suggests, nobody is really in physical danger, the whole episode seems more comical by the hour.

    At this point I go along with commentators like Mark Steyn who suggest the biggest problem is why Tenet wasn't fired long before now, and the whole story suggests the need for major housecleaning at the CIA.

    posted by: John Bruce on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    Dude, you disagree with Maureen Dowd 75% of the time?

    Heck, I can't even understand her 75% of the time. And she's supposed to be on my side...

    posted by: uh_clem on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    Dear Mr. Bruce,

    Oh fer the love of God, just give it up already? Are you some kind of GOP booster or something? Last week you didn't even think she could be a spy based on her napkins and nice house. The fact that she would be part of this at all is a sign of monumental incompetence on the part of the Bush Admin. This was not a smart move. No amount of additional perfuming is going to make it smell like a lily. Even Kristof thinks it stinks. Just because it may or may not have been illegal, doesn't mean that people can't see that it was *wrong*. You cotton to the concept of wrong, John? It used be a word Republicans were expected to understand. Morality. Ethics. Right. Wrong.

    posted by: Oldman on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    John Bruce repeated a familiar canard: It appears to have been general knowledge, at least among a certain level of Washington insiders, that Plame worked for the CIA.

    This claim keeps coming back and back, and with no evidence to back it up. None.

    Other than that, what Oldman said. It's a good thing for the GOP there are Republicans like Daniel Drezner and Oldman around, since based only on people like you, the rest of us would be justified in calling the Republicans the traitor party.

    posted by: Jesurgislac on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    “[M]y sense is that Democrats exaggerate the damage to Mrs. Wilson's career and to her personal security, while Republicans vastly play down the enormity of the security breach and the danger to the assets she worked with..”

    I still strongly believe that this so-called scandal is merely an attempt by the liberal media to damage the Bush administration. This would have have never been a story during the Clinton years. There’s also far too much talk about Mrs. Wilson’s ability to shoot a gun and her “deep cover” status. The reality is that she was probably just a boring energy researcher who reported on the conferences she attended. The latter were more than likely already attended by an ample number of western analysts. We must not forget that the CIA wastes a lot of money every year on redundant studies. My guess is that she was never placed in a life threatening situation.

    Nicholas Kristoff is in the embarrassing position of angering his liberal cohorts. The evidence he presents suggests that no law was violated. At worst, someone goofed up similarly to a traffic offender who is ticketed for going 60.01 miles per hour in a 60 mile zone. Thus, the whole argument against the alleged perpetrator(s) is based solely on petty legalisms.

    posted by: David Thomson on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    Kristof's column was a model of faux even-handedness. The Democrats have "exaggerated" the scandal? All he really says is that, if his "sense" is right, the Democrats have exaggerated the personal danger to Plame herself. What, it's less of a scandal if the only people who are put in danger are people we'll never hear about?

    And the Democrats have "politicized" it? The motives for this leak were purely political! The motives for Bush's complete indolence since July were purely political! I don't even get what Kristof might mean by this. Politicized? How can you "politicize" a clumsy political hatchet job?

    And as for the special prosecutor that Kristof fears would interfere with "the basic task of governing," how could there possibly be a more appropriate case for it? Which of the words in "conflict of interest" is Kristof unacquainted with?

    posted by: SqueakyRat on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

    The WaPo story plainly identifies her as having been called an "analyst." I wouldn't quite shoot down the "inadvertent" theory as this suggests they were unaware of any cover.

    posted by: HH on 10.12.03 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

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