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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Thursday, July 17, 2003



Let's Enjoy Some Popcorn

It's fun, fluffy, and insubstantial. And speaking of David Corn's recent piece in The Nation, it was a tour de force. With a Jayson Blair-flair that would make Maureen Dowd proud, he demonstrates that with selective excerpts, careful quotations, and dramatic hypotheticals, a mini-scandal can be generated from virtually nothing.

[Mini-update: The David Corn article has inspired the fourth of Howard Dean's 16 Questions, so this is quite topical].

[Breaking News, and my spin, here]

His charge? It's more of a question, really, but here it is:

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.


Well, if a fellow begins with a question, you should probably ask yourself a question, too, namely, if he is not sure of his story, why should I be? And our sense of uncertainty only deepens as we progress.

Mr. Corn is discussing the case of former Ambassador Wilson, who went to Niger to investigate the possibility that Iraq was purchasing, or attempting to purchase, uranium. After providing background, Mr. Corn takes us to the critical bit:

Soon after Wilson disclosed his trip in the media and made the White House look bad. the payback came. [Robert] Novak's July 14, 2003, column presented the back-story on Wilson's mission and contained the following sentences: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate" the allegation.

...So [Wilson] will neither confirm nor deny that his wife--who is the mother of three-year-old twins--works for the CIA. But let's assume she does. That would seem to mean that the Bush administration has screwed one of its own top-secret operatives in order to punish Wilson or to send a message to others who might challenge it.

The sources for Novak's assertion about Wilson's wife appear to be "two senior administration officials." If so, a pair of top Bush officials told a reporter the name of a CIA operative who apparently has worked under what's known as "nonofficial cover"...


Well, I know you want to see what Mr. Novak said.

"...Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. 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. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me. "

OK, we recognize the first two sentences from Mr. Corn's excerpt. But does that third sentence really say "The CIA says..."? The CIA is the source for the news that Ms. Wilson is with the CIA?! Where did Mr. Corn pop the idea that the White House was the source? When Mr. Corn says that "The sources for Novak's assertion about Wilson's wife appear to be "two senior administration officials." , that appearance only develops because the third sentence is dropped.

Based on Mr. Novak's column, the CIA, at a minimum, confirmed that Ms. Wislon worked there. At a maximum, they were the only source for that tidbit. Here is what Mr. Novak attributed to "administration officials":

Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report.

Well, then, is it only the CIA that makes this sort of suggestion? Surely there are folks at the State Department, the Defense Department, or even the White House that might have input into this sort of decision.

Now, perhaps Mr. Novak is being a bit cute himself. His first sentence in this paragraph tells us, with no source, that Ms. Wilson is CIA. The second sentence mentions administration officials, but with no direct CIA link. The third clearly relies on CIA sources to describe her role. Might the White House people have mentioned her CIA connection? Sure. But Novak did not source it to them. If she really were some super-top-secret operative, would the CIA blithely confirm it? Of course not. Or, if the CIA is outing its own spies in a bitter in-house feud, then Mr. Corn really missed a story.

Does Mr. Corn have any evidence? He and Mr. Wilson engage in a flight of fancy, playing "what-if" to the question of how serious this is:

Without acknowledging whether she is a deep-cover CIA employee, Wilson says, "Naming her this way would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated in her entire career. This is the stuff of Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames."

Yes, and if I were Bill Gates blogging away here, I would pay one million dollars to the first ten folks to e-mail me! Live it up, make it ten million! But don't run out and spend it just yet.

And yes, I agree with Messrs. Wilson and Corn - if Ms. Wilson really was a top level spy, then it would be a disaster for the CIA to out her (Auto-out her?). Which sort of suggests, to me if not to Mr. Corn, that she is not a top level spy.

You are wondering about motive. OK, you are also wondering about your ten million, but don't - focus on motive for a moment. After Mr. Wilson presented a misleading account of his trip to Niger in the NY Times, the yellowcake hit the fan. Folks at the CIA and the White House were, no doubt, irked.

However, as some of us suspected, and TIME magazine confirmed, there were serious differences of opinion as to just what Mr. Wilson had (orally) reported. Mr. Wilson now has a new story about what he learned in Niger. However, I suspect that he would prefer to change the subject off of his selective memory and back to the Wicked White House. Hence, this attempt to depict himself as a victim.

A number of bloggers posted on this, with some mix of skepticism and other emotions. I will have to try my rebuttal out on the CalPundit, Mark Kleiman, Demosthenes, and Brad Delong. Well, I say that, but I have been warming up in their comments sections, so there are no surprises coming.

UPDATE: A careful look at the TIME article adds this:

...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...

At other points in the TIME story they mention "Administration officials". Since this is "government", it suggests that TIME at least, if not Mr. Novak as well, is getting this from the CIA rather than the White House.

And one more big link above.


UPDATE 2: Mark Kleiman has a fascinating follow up. I will excerpt just his intro:

LOOKS LIKE A BIG ONE

Most of the reasons I gave last night for doubting the Valerie Plame story have dissolved in the morning light.

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.

Moreover, the fact that the piece was in Time and there's been no denial so far from the White House is pretty conclusive. Whoever planted that story surely read it closely....


This just gets more interesting.


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