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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Sunday, July 20, 2003

At Number Four - With A Bullet!

I spent some time on Thursday examining an article by David Corn in The Nation which raised questions about "senior officials" in the Bush White House. Now, this has become number 4 of Howard Dean's 16 questions, and we will let him ask it:

4. Mr. President, we urgently need an explanation about the very serious charge that senior officials in your Administration may have retaliated against Ambassador Joseph Wilson by illegally disclosing that his wife is an undercover CIA officer. (The Nation, Corn, David, 7/16/2003)

(Hey, how come I provide a link to the Corn article and the Dean site does not? Who is web-savvy now?)

[Mini-Update - Breaking news, and my spin, here]

Sorry, levity-free zone ahead. First, it is worth noting that Mr. Corn did not make "the very serious charge". He raised it as a question, with a number of caveats. I am inclined to agree with Mr. Dean, and many others, that a more complete explanation is in order. However, I believe there are many possible explanations. I should also note that, if the Dean staff is doing its job, they have already investigated this, and wouldn't be asking unless their legwork pointed to "scandal". Well, we may learn something about Dean's staffwork, too.

I have had a chance to reflect on this, and have exchanged views with some other bloggers. The highly regarded Mark Kleiman had two posts on this subject. The first, "WOULD SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME THIS ISN'T TRUE?", describes the situation. The second, "LOOKS LIKE A BIG ONE", seems to conclude that TIME magazine had verified the David Corn story:

...We don't have to rely on the Nation and Novak; the Time story I linked to (but, obviously, hadn't read carefully enough) says that "officials" had identified Plame as "a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." So we still have only Novak's word on "senior officials," but that the information about Plame's status was revealed to the press as part of an Administration campaign to discredit her husband is no longer subject to reasonable doubt.

[Mini-Update - like blogs passing in the night, Mr. Kleiman has posted as I type. His latest thoughts are here, and some of my questions seem to be answered. Man, do I re-write? Groan. No. But the places where I say Mr. Kleiman does not have reasonable doubt? Modify - his doubts have re-surfaced.]

Emphasis added. I had less than 16 questions for Mr. Kleiman, but they were longer. My gist was, look, neither of us are professional journalists, but in its reporting of this story, TIME seems to be distinguishing between "Administration officials" and "government officials". Ari Fleischer, for instance, is an "Administration official"; George Tenet is a "government official". In the quote that you [Mr. Kleiman] excerpt as conclusive, what TIME actually says is "Some government officials, noting that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, intimate that she was involved in his being dispatched Niger...". (My emphasis added).

In fact, in his original column, Mr. Novak strongly suggested that he had sources in both the White House and government, to wit, the CIA:

"Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction [Let's note the absence of a source for this statement]. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.

Furthermore, in The Nation column, Mr. Corn makes a similar distinction:

Novak tells me that he was indeed tipped off by government officials about Wilson's wife and had no reluctance about naming her. "I figured if they gave it to me," he says. "They'd give it to others....I'm a reporter. Somebody gives me information and it's accurate. I generally use it." And Wilson says Novak told him that his sources were administration officials.

So, my first question for Mr. Kleiman was - if TIME, Mr. Corn, and Mr. Novak are characterizing the source as "government", as distinct from "Administration", why aren't you?

And, next, if TIME does not mean Adminstration officials in the sentence where they refer to "government officials" (a defensible proposition, I think) then what is it about the TIME story that erased any doubts held over from the heavily caveated Corn story?

Well, Mr. Kleiman has been kind enough to entertain my questions, and may find time to post a reply. I am reluctant to attempt to paraphrase his e-mails until he does so, although he has graciously given me permission to take a stab at it.

Mr. Kleiman was also sufficiently wicked to ask me a seemingly innocent question - what did I think happen, and is it a big deal?

Hey, not so fast, was my quick reply. I shoot down other people's theories, I don't build my own. But if I may make a topical analogy, someone can ask me what I think happened with Kobe Bryant, and I may have a theory (Actually, I do. Several.) But do I really imagine that my explanation is worth much? No.

Similarly in this case. I am balancing in my mind four basic theories, with variations, all of which seem to fit the facts as we know them. I have no way of knowing which is true, but I can say three things - I have reasonable doubt about all of them, my guess as to the explanation that will ultimately pan out differs from Mr. Kleiman's "no reasonable doubt" scenario, and I hope the Administration provides enough disclosure that we, the people, learn the truth.

Right then, four theories. The source revealing Ms. Wilson to be CIA was either the Administration or the CIA; and her role at the CIA is either sensitive, in which case national security may have been breached and lives threatened, or it is not, in which case this gets a bit of a ho-hum. Two possibilities for the first variable, two for the second, multiply, four theories.

Now, variations - Since we have Congressional oversight of the CIA, maybe it was evil Republicans in the Congress that outed Ms. Plame, off the record. Hey, I am just putting that out there for completeness.

And, there is a possibility that Ms. Wilson really was involved in the selection of Ambassador Wilson for this trip. Since the process by which he was picked has been in the news (see Wolf Blitzer transcript), then arguably, there is a legitimate news interest in revealing that fact. Of course that would not trump the importance of maintaining her CIA cover if it really is clandestine, but if her CIA role is not an official secret, then maybe she really does belong in the news. In which case, even the idea that this is a "smear" campaign becomes suspect.

OK, in favor of the theory that Mr. Novak's primary source was the Administration - well, he offers the news that Ms. Wilson is CIA with no source, and the next sentence describes information gleaned about Ms. Wilson from "Administration officials". Set against that, the information so attributed is not directly relevant to her CIA background - they "told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report."

Mr. Corn surely asked Mr. Novak specifically about his source, since that was the whole point of his story, and got "government officials". TIME could not seem to buttress their "War on Wilson" thesis by tracking down the "senior Administration officials" that told Novak that the wife suggested him for Niger. However, TIME did find "government officials" to pass on that rumor, and confirm her CIA connection.

A possible explanation - a White House official gave Mr. Novak a detailed run down of Ms. Wilson off the record, and the "She suggested him for Niger" rumor on the record. So armed, Mr. Novak then tricked the CIA into confirming her status. Figuring her story was out anyway, the CIA kept talking when TIME called.

Is it possible? I suppose the CIA could be that stupid and casual about blowing an agent's cover. And that is where my "Congressional Republicans" idea comes in - maybe they gave Mr. Novak enough, off the record, to get him started. But I have two problems with this theory. If Ms. Wilson's CIA role is sensitive, it requires both criminal activity at the White House and criminal stupidity in the CIA; and it seems to strain to re-interpret Mr. Novak's own description of his sources. Is it conceivable that Mr. Novak is being deceptive? Hmm.

Next idea - the source for the news that she is CIA came from the CIA. If her role is sensitive, this is a big story in its own right - "CIA in Disarray; Internal Feud Compromises Security". Not a good headline for Bush or the country, but not as bad for Bush as the scenario proposed by Mr. Corn and endorsed by Mr. Kleiman. I happen to think this theory fits everyone's descriptions of their sources quite nicely. Oh, are you asking me about this, from the Ambassador:

"...Wilson says Novak told him that his sources were administration officials."

Well, Novak admits to having Administration officials for part of his story. Without knowing how the conversation developed between Mr. Novak and the Ambassador, or how Mr. Corn chose to depict the Ambassador's account, I am willing to discount this. To zero.

Now, is Ms. Wilson in a sensitive role at the CIA? The best evidence for that is Mr. Novak's use of the word "operative". What was TIME able to get from their chatty "government officials", plural?:

...Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction...

You know,"operative" is a lot more glamorous than "official". Could Novak be spicing up his column? Could Novak's source be spicing up his own leak? Could the chatty chaps at the CIA be trying to cool speculation, by stonewalling TIME down from "operative" to "official"? We're on a fine line here, but I am not prepared to cast aside all doubt and conclude a crime has occurred on the basis of this word.

Leaving us, or at least me, where? My guess is that Ms. Wilson has some role at the CIA (yes, I am on a limb here), but that her presence on the payroll is not a state secret. George Tenet, for example, is in a similar situation. Mr. Corn tells us that Ms. Wilson is "...a woman known to friends as an energy analyst for a private firm". Well, she could be CIA and not prefer to chat about it with the neighbors, even though it is not an official secret. I know dentists and psychologists who take a similar tack. Or, her friends might not discuss her background with reporters. Or, she might be a deep-cover agent that the CIA just can't stop talking about to Mr. Novak, TIME, and anyone else who calls, but I don't think so.

If her job is not a secret, no crime has been committed. Maybe folks at the CIA are mad at the Ambassador, and are spreading this story. Apparently it spread to the White House, so that Mr. Novak got it there and TIME got it at the CIA. Maybe it is a bit of a smear, maybe it is valid news. Maybe David Corn is just trying to pop up a story.

Then again, this is the White House crowd that outed a gay Canadian reporter. Well, outed is wrong, he was already out, although maybe not to the troops he was covering in Iraq. And the White House statement was legal and accurate, which is not what we are alleging here. But we don't need to pretend that we are dealing with choir-boys, or brain surgeons.

And Ricky West's colleague points out that we have the British suicide. If there is a trans-Atlantic cabal pushing for this war and attempting to intimidate the opposition (NOT his theory, nor mine, but I'm just sayin'), they have had a good week, intimidation-wise.

So yes, I would like to know more. But I continue to have what I think are very reasonable doubts that a crime was committed by White House officials. I don't hold any of these theories strongly enough to say "I believe this". But if I had to bet, I would say, CIA source, her CIA role is not a state secret, and she had some involvement in, or at least prior knowledge of, his selection. And yes, I am troubled that my calm, carefully reasoned position exactly tracks my partisan prejudices.

Fortunately, I don't have to bet. And I want someone to find out.

EPILOGUE: A few afterthoughts - if I answer each of Dean's 16 questions like this, the election will be over before we finish. Hope he's not waiting for me.

Secondly, I just L-U-V the banner in the Dean website photo- "We Can Handle The Truth". It could not tie in better with my new media strategy for the White House. Code Red!

UPDATE: And a final, lede-burying idea! Proper lawyers (if I can believe what I see on TV) are trained not to ask a question in cross-examination unless they already know the answer. Avoid surprises.

Of course, Dr. Dean is, uhh, a doctor. They ask all sorts of questions, hoping to learn something.

Well, if the Dean staff is doing a good job, they have checked around Washington and have already apprised themselves of the reality of the Valerie Wilson situation. This would not be one of Dean's questions unless they already know that at least some parts of the "Corn Scandal" are true. Ms. Wilson's employment status, for example, should be relatively easy to check.

OTOH, if this scandal dissolves into laughter, then we learn something quite different about the Dean staff.

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