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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Josh Marshall On Valerie Plame Wilson - My Full Monty

Josh Marshall enters the fray! As a well connected Washington journalist/blogger who has been covering the uranium side of this, we expect he has useful sources and valuable insights to contribute to this story.

[Oh, just say it - the guy is a partisan attack machine (T4?) who is on every Bush scandal like a junkyard dog on a T-bone. His silence up to now has been reminiscent of the curious incident of another non-barking dog.]

We welcome all attempts to publicize this story and drag it into the light of day, so let's see what Mr. Marshall, writing in "The Hill", can add to the story:

[Let's rip into this! Emphasis added throughout.]

Enough already. Enough excuse-making.

We know that two senior members of the Bush administration intentionally blew the cover of an undercover CIA officer whose job is combating weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation. And their motivation was pure politics.

This is a very exciting lead! David Corn quite clearly did not know this when he wrote his heavily caveatted column on July 16. We reprise Mr. Corns's opening:

Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security--and break the law--in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?

It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Bob Novak can be trusted.

Question marks, "it sure looks that way", and "if ...Bob Novak can be trusted". Is Mr. Marshall ready to take us past Mr. Corn's questions?

In case you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, let me explain...

Which he does. Then:

...To get back at Wilson, they blew the cover of his wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative specializing in tracking other countries’ efforts to acquire WMD.

How do we know this? Because two weeks ago syndicated columnist Robert Novak fingered Wilson’s wife as an “Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction” on the say-so of “two senior administration officials.” They told him Plame had suggested Wilson for the job.

Now, as it happens, it’s not even clear that this charge — that Wilson’s wife got him the gig in Niger — is true. The more relevant point, however, is that two senior administration officials publicized her identity which they almost certainly knew only because of their access to government secrets.

Oh, dear. So far, this is recycled David Corn, which was fun once. And the "almost certainly" suggests, again, that we just don't know. Still, he wouldn't be writing unless he had some news, so let's be patient, he is just getting us up to speed now. Eventually he will tell us what he has learned, beyond Mr. Corn, to confirm the story. The suspense is gripping!

I would also like to point out, to anyone who thought they knew the answer to this, Mr. Marshall's uncertainty on the matter of whether Ms. Wilson really was involved in selecting the Ambassador for the trip. Continuing:

Consider what that means.

Hey, wait. Shouldn't we consider whether it is true, before we consider what it means? Mr. Corn was not sure. Why, based on the same evidence, is Mr. Marshall? Sentence first, then the trial? Unless Mr. Marshall intends to dismiss the charges, we want evidence!

CIA agents work under different sorts of “cover.” There’s “official cover” — like when an agent is assigned to a U.S. embassy under the guise that he or she is a foreign service officer. Then there’s “nonofficial” cover — like when your business cards say you’re a manager at Acme Overseas Energy Corporation, but you really work for the CIA.

Plame is in that latter category.

OK, I think that might be news. It is unsourced, so perhaps Mr. Marshall is relying on the speculation provided by Mr. Corn.

By telling the world who she really works for, those senior administration officials not only jeopardized her career, they also compromised whatever operations she may have worked on, whatever networks she may have developed or relationships she may have cultivated.

Here is what Mr. Corn wrote, quoting Ambassador Wilson:

"Naming her this way would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated in her entire career.

I am just not sure that we are getting independent confirmation, or recycling. I am sure that Mr. Marshall is a skilled journailist, entirely capable of describing, however discreetly, his sources. I am also sure he is a skilled polemicist. Press on:

According to one highly-respected retired CIA officer who I spoke to Monday, revealing the identity of a “NOC” like Plame could literally put the lives of those who cooperated with her at risk. To reveal her identity, he told me, was “grossly irresponsible.”

I know people will insist to me that the retired CIA chap was speaking of Ms. Wilson specifically, and not making a general observation about covert agents. It will be inconceivable to supporters of this viewpoint that he was making a hypothetical statement, such as "IF she is an NOC, this would be grossly irresponsible, but I am retired, and anyway I would not confirm her status if I knew it, which I don't", which Mr. Marshall shortened for our benefit. And anyway, why shouldn't he shorten it, he has already "established" that she is an NOC.

The debate may or may not swirl - I am open to the possibility that we are getting a bit of spin here, and I suspect others may not be. Press on:

Some of the White House’s spinners have been putting out the word that Plame may not that been that covert an agent after all. So maybe broadcasting her identity wasn’t such a big deal. This isn’t that easy an argument to refute since, precisely because Plame is a covert agent, it’s difficult to find out just what she does or precisely what her status is.

Sorry, I tricked even myself there. Evidently, Mr. Marshall has not yet established whether Ms.Wilson is really "covert" covert, or just covert. Well, that is news.

And note the sourcing - "White House spinners". This almost surely does not mean "White House officials". Don Luskin may have found some, with his "Washington contacts". In fact, I imagine I might qualify, on this story at least, as a "White House spinner". Time to update the business card!

My sources tell me that Plame formerly worked abroad under nonofficial cover and has more recently worked stateside. Her position today may be less sensitive than it was when she worked abroad. But she still works on WMD proliferation issues. And, at a minimum, any operation that she may once have been involved in is probably now fatally compromised, any company which provided her cover is now exposed.

However that may be, though, just how deep undercover does a CIA operative have to be before blowing her cover becomes a problem?

Back to the White House spinner for re-write - Mr. Marshall is warning us that, at a minimum, bad things might possibly have happened. Well, yes, we have said all along (Sorry, in non-spin mode), that that is one of several possibilities. Whether Mr. Marshall has identified a global minimum, or a local minimum will be left for the mathematically inclined.

And we note his question - when does blowing her cover become a problem? Well, we are all wondering. A key point of this story hinges on whether national security compromised. Evidently, we are still not sure.

A second element is, was Ms. Wilson's prospective future covert career ruined? Not knowing the career path she is on, or to which she aspired, we do not know. Doesn't look good, however, as I have said before, and will say again.

So far, the White House’s reaction has been awfully weaselly.

In the company of strangers.

Frankly, I think Novak’s column gives us plenty of evidence.

Complete agreement that it gives us evidence of something. Felonies? Far from clear.

To date, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have called for investigations and any number of other senators have told reporters that some sort of inquiry is probably in order. But let’s be honest. We don’t really need any investigations, with all their depositions and fancy lawyers and public grandstanding. If the president wanted to, he could wrap this up with a few quick phone calls. So why doesn’t he?

We don't need no stinkin' badges either. Sentence first!

OK, let me find my way back to the center of the fairway - sometimes I slice right.

As to Mr. Marshall's point that we don't need a formal investigation, I concur. I would hope (my minimum) that the President, Mr. Tenet of the CIA, and top Congressional leaders of both parties would meet, have a candid discussion about whether national security was really compromised, and resolve this. As a bonus, I would love some sort of public acknowledgement that this conversation has occurred, if only so I could shut up about this.

As to "new" news in Mr. Marshall's piece, the main news is that he is working on it at all - we have a talented Washington journalist publicly working on this story, and it is evidently a b**** to get anyone to say anything helpful.

Other news: the bit about his sources describing Ms. Wilson's current role does point in favor of the White House. A possible defense against criminal charges would be lack of knowledge or intent - if she has not been obviously covert (yes, that makes sense, stay with me), but simply has "covert" stamped on her file, it is possible that no one at the White House knew her mysterious past. I am not an attorney, but this seems to help them out, as I understand the statutes. We highlighted earlier a moment when Mr. Marshall inserted a similar qualifier, so we are not making this up.

Does this help the White House against charges of stupidity, or worse (hey, I'm a conservative), bad manners? Not at all. If they want to dump on Ambassador Wilson, fine, but leave the little woman out of it (sorry, unreconstructed troglodyte moment).

Other news - if it is here, I am missing it. Mr. Marshall obviously has made some phone calls, and come up with very little, and we applaud his effort. Believe me, we are deeply sympathetic to any sense of frustration he may be feeling on covering this.

Now (end applause), under "glaring omissions", we note that he never mentions that Mr. Novak cited CIA sources in his original column, nor does he mention that TIME has some coverage of this story which can lend itself to an alternative explanation, as noted in this timeline.

Where does this story go next? One open avenue would be to follow up with Susan Whitson, an FBI spokeswoman, who said the agency would "look at the issue and make determinations about whether there is an investigation that is warranted", if I may plagiarize Newsday. Even a "we don't comment on investigations, or even on whether this has become an investigation" might stir the pot.

So, Big Finish: Mr. Marshall, thanks for joining the conversation. Now pipe down.

UPDATE: More bricks in the bag? Yes, we are puzzling over the "highly-respected retired CIA officer" Mr. Marshall spoke to. Could it be the "former career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to a Muslim country. He also studied military strategy at the National War College with retired four-stars like Wes Clark, Hugh Shelton, and others"? You may remember that chap as the one who, during the "too few troops" debate this spring, wondered if we could spell Dunkirk.

Or, perhaps Mr. Marshall has tracked down the "former intelligence official" who gave such helpful input to Sy Hersh.

Just wondering.

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