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Between the Lines

October 01, 2003

The return of the Flat Earth Society

I have a guilty secret: I actually like reading James Taranto, the acerbic editor of the Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web Today site, even when he’s absurdly tendentious, which is often. But since the Valerie Plame affair went nuclear, he (like other denizens of the Journal’s edit page) has been sounding like a querulous founding member of the Flat Earth Society who’s suddenly panic-stricken that there might actually be a little curvature out there.

Yesterday, for example, Taranto wrote that, “Anti-Bush partisans are really piling on thick over the purported scandal involving the ‘outing,’ supposedly by White House officials, of Valerie Plame, who may or may not have been a covert CIA operative, and who is married to a critic of the administration named Joe Wilson.” At the time this dropped into my inbox, it was crystal clear that a) Plame was a covert agent because the head White House lawyer had already told the staff so and that b) Taranto was walking the weedy neocon path that holds it doesn’t matter that her name became public because her husband had the temerity to disagree with the president. Never mind that her expertise lies in weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's supposed possession of which, remember, was the key justification for why we went to war.

Then Taranto went on to reprint columnist Robert Novak’s revisionist history of how he came to be told Plame was a spook (at least yesterday’s version was strikingly different than what Novak said in his original July 14 column, and in interviews at that time about it, so he either fibbed then or is now).

Today Taranto demoted Plame to a “kerfuffle,” which my dictionary defines as a fuss or disturbance. Nothing to worry about, in any case.

And here’s a little something from a Wall Street Journal editorial on the Plame business:

"Of course! The reason this is suddenly a story is because Mr.[Karl] Rove, the President's political strategist and confidant from Texas, has become the main target. …The media, and the Democrats now slip-streaming behind them, understand that the what of this mystery matters much less than the who. … If they can take down Mr. Rove, the lead planner for Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, they will have knocked the props out of his Presidency."

Really? We thought this was about unmasking a veteran CIA undercover agent, destroying her effectiveness in the job she was doing and possibly threatening at least some of her contacts. We don’t know if Rove is the guilty party here – though he’s the president’s top hired gun, is vindictive enough and has a history of leaking to columnist Novak (George H.W. Bush reportedly fired him from his campaign for just that offense).

See? The earth really isn’t round to these folks.

P.S.: I should mention that today Taranto also dives into the “Bush hatred” question that I’ve blogged about a couple of times in the last week or so. It’s worth a read.

He also has a link to this useful site, which has letters from U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Included is this letter from Army Maj. Eric Rydbom, who hails from Shoreline (a Seattle suburb). Rydbom is an engineer and discusses at length some of the military's efforts to help restore basic services in Iraq, and concludes with this:

"I'm living in a 'guest palace' on a 500-acre palace compound with 20 palaces with like facilities built in half a dozen towns all over Iraq that were built for one man. Drive down the street and out into the countryside five miles away like I have and see all the families of 10 or more, all living in mud huts and herding the two dozen sheep on which their very existence depends .... then tell me why you think we are here."

Posted by tbrown at 02:29 PM

He talked the talk, but will he walk the walk?

"The President and I place deterring, detecting, and punishing unauthorized disclosures of U.S. national security secrets among our highest priorities, at all times, but especially in this time of war against terrorism of global reach."
-- Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote in an October 2002 report to Congress.

However, there's this:

“The Justice Department has responded affirmatively to [CIA Director George] Tenet's request for an investigation,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune says in an editorial on the Valerie Plame mess. “But get this: When Justice informed the White House of the investigation Monday evening, it said it would be all right if the staff was notified Tuesday morning to safeguard all material that related to the case. The staff had all night to get rid of anything incriminating.

That incredible tidbit supports calls by Democrats and a slew of others for Attorney General John Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel to investigate this case. They're right: Ashcroft has no credibility in this, and neither does the White House, given its habitual effort to spin information, mislead the American people and smear anyone who disagrees with it.”

On the offchance that Ashcroft does find something amiss, we assume he’ll be certain to apply his latest edict to his department’s lawyers to the miscreants and file the most serious charge and seek the maximum sentence supported by the evidence.

Posted by tbrown at 11:57 AM

A fresh Plame wrap up

Mark A.R. Kleiman has an excellent wrapup of developments on the Valerie Plame affair and the criminal investigation of possible White House involvement at Open Source Politics.

There's also fresh analysis on Brad DeLong's blog, appropriately titled "Incipient Paranoia?":

"I started out thinking this was just another round in the mother of all bureaucratic turf wars -- with [CIA Director George] Tenet striking preemptively to keep the White House and its congressional allies from tagging him with responsibility for the missing WMD debacle. And maybe that's it. Maybe this really is about nothing more complicated than one man's fight to keep his job.

"But the more I watch the story unfold, the more I think something deeper and darker is at stake. It seems the top career elite at the CIA, plus Tenet, has pulled out all the stops to try to bust up the Rove machine. That suggests they're worried about something much bigger than just bureaucratic turf or the WMD blame game.

In fact, if this were a Third World country, I'd say we're witnessing the early stages of a coup d'etat -- or of a desperate effort to prevent one. But of course, those kind of things never happen in America."


Kevin Drum at Calpundit provides some useful exerpts from an online forum at the Washington Post conducted by former CIA agent Mel Goodman (link via Atrios). A sample:

"There is a great deal of anger and frustration [at the CIA] over the White House pressure tactics on intelligence assessments, the terrible handling of the Iraq-Niger story, Rumsfeld's pressure on Tenet, etc. etc. This is worse, however, because it compromises the careers of CIA officers and the lives of foreign assets. This is extremely serious business, particularly in a world where human intelligence could make all the difference."

Posted by tbrown at 10:43 AM

It's all unraveling

There's still a lot we don't know about the unmasking of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent, by two "senior administration officials." But we're learning a lot now, very quickly, and none of it looks good for President Bush.

Here's what Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department counter-terrorism official said on PBS' Newshour today (link via Atrios):

"This not an alleged abuse. This is a confirmed abuse. I worked with this woman. She started training with me. She has been under cover for three decades. She is not as Bob Novak [the columnist who first published her name] suggested a 'CIA analyst.' Given that, I was a CIA analyst for 4 years. I was under cover. I could not divulge to my family outside of my wife that I worked for the CIA until I left the Intelligence Agency on Sept. 30, 1989. At that point I could admit it. The fact that she was under cover for three decades and that has been divulged is outrageous.

"She was put undercover for certain reasons. One, she works in an area where people she works with overseas could be compromised...

"For these journalists to argue that this is no big deal... and if I hear another Republican operative suggesting that, well, this was just an analyst. Fine. Let them go undercover. Let's put them go overseas. Let's out them and see how they like it...

"I say this as a registered Republican. I am on record giving contributions to the George Bush campaign. This is not about partisan politics. This is about a betrayal, a political smear, of an individual who had no relevance to the story. Publishing her name in that story added nothing to it because the entire intent was, correctly as Ambassador Wilson noted, to intimidate, to suggest that there was some impropriety that somehow his wife was in a decision-making position to influence his ability to go over and savage a stupid policy, an erroneous policy, and frankly what was a false policy of suggesting that there was nuclear material in Iraq that required this war. This was about a political attack. To pretend it was something else, to get into this parsing of words.

"I tell you, it sickens me to be a Republican to see this."

Then there's this, from Brad DeLong's blog. DeLong is a former Clinton administration official, so you can take that into account when you read what he has to say. But he was an insider and it shows here: this is the best analysis I've seen yet about why the CIA decided to take on the White House in so direct a fashion.

"The fact that [Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet has moved on this -- has requested the Justice Department to investigate -- means that he or that large factions within his agency are truly angry and very upset at what the White House has done," DeLong says. "Even so, it is never good for Directors or Deputy Directors or Assistant Directors of Central Intelligence to be perceived inside the White House as having launched an unsuccessful bureaucratic war at those whom the president trusts -- if, that is, they are still trusted when the process unwinds to its end. There must be people inside the CIA who are highly confident that this will end very badly for the guilty parties inside the White House, or the CIA would have found reasons to avoid the referral."

After you read that piece, check DeLong's more recent entries. Its devastating stuff.

If you want to stay on top of this story, these are the links to follow:

Mark A.R. Kleiman

Talking Points Memo

Brad DeLong

Whiskey Bar

Atrios Eschaton


And let's not forget the guy who broke this story, David Corn of The Nation.

Also, check back here -- I'm doing my best.

If you want explanations that support the administration in any meaningful way, you'll have to do your own looking. I haven't found any yet.

Update: The right blogosphere is still in deep denial this morning, but Tom Maguire does denial better than most of them. He has the best case so far for the administration's point of view. He spends a lot of time trying to make the case that disclosing Plame's probably wasn't such a big deal:

"... I am not saying I don't care," Maguire says. "I am saying it is far from clear that her 'outing' was the blow to national security that partisan critics would like to imagine."

Well, none of us knows at this stage what actual damage it caused, but the fact that the CIA clearly is pushing this case argues that it was substantial or that it fears the Bush administration may continue this kind of conduct, which would, ultimately, endanger national security.

Posted by tbrown at 09:55 AM

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The return of the Flat Earth Society
He talked the talk, but will he walk the walk?
A fresh Plame wrap up
It's all unraveling


Blogs to watch

Abu Ardvark
Andrew Sullivan
Atrios Eschaton
Best of the Web
Drudge Report
Joe Conason (subscription required)
Josh Marshall
Kaus files
No More Mr. Nice Blog
Real Clear Politics
The Corner
The Volokh Conspiracy
The Whiskey Bar

Mideast blogs

Salam Pax (Iraq)
G. in Baghdad
L.T. Smash (U.S. military in Iraq)
Lady Sun (Iran)

City blogs

L.A. Examiner

Africa blogs

Cathy Buckle

Media blogs

Dan Gillmor's eJournal
Media Whores Online


Newspapers online (guide to papers on the web)
International Herald Tribune
The Guardian U.K.
New York Times (free registration required)

Economy blogs

Brad DeLong

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