The always astute Mickey Kaus argues (How Dems Could Blow Plamegate) that the Democrats should resist the temptation to turn the Plame investigation into a trial of the war in Iraq, and focus on the harm done to national security by the outing of a covert agent:
...while Dems might get a majority of Americans to agree that the Iraq War was a bad move, they'd get about 95% to agree that compromising covert American agents is a bad move. Why not make the latter the issue?
Since Special Counsel Fitzgerald is contemplating a similar question as he weighs indictments, let's address this central question - how covert was Valerie Plame?
The standard Democratic talking point is that Ms. Plame must have been covert or the CIA would not have filed a criminal referral to the Department of Justice. Bob Somerby tackles this, wondering just when it was that the Left decided to take every utterance of the CIA at face value. On the question of whether the CIA is utterly reliable on the question of White House leaks, let's remember that at least part of the CIA was engaged in a bitter leaking match with the White House over who was to blame for the missing WMDs; this Knight-Ridder story from June 12, 2003 gives a flavor.
Let's note something else: in "The Stovepipe", Seymour Hersh went so far as to speculate that rogue ex-intelligence officers had created the Niger forgeries, and that the rumor had become "water-cooler gossip" at Langley. My point - if the New Yorker could publish that, why is it inconceivable that the CIA is engaged in a bit of a dirty trick with the criminal referral? Perhaps ironists abound at Langley - Cheney's office hyped the evidence against Saddam, so maybe now the CIA is hyping the evidence against them.
And that said, the actual criminal referral generated by the CIA does not specifically refer to the Plame leak, but rather to "unauthorized disclosure of unauthorized information", per the letter to John Conyers from the CIA. And since the report prepared based on Wilson's trip has not been declassified, it may be that the CIA is relying on leaks about Wilson's trip as the basis for its referral.
So from several different perspectives, that criminal referral may not be dispositive as to whether Valerie Plame was covert.
That said, let's acknowledge some other talking points in favor of Ms. Plame's covert status - the famous eight redacted pages in the appeals court decision certainly suggest that something is up; and Fitzgerald did not work on this investigation for two years only to be informed by some blogger that he is wasting his time.
Of course, we have Joe Wilson himself, speculating on the significance of the leak *if* his wife were in fact covert. Since this set the tone for much that followed, let's revisit that:
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."
Start with Joe Wilson, retired diplomat turned consultant. On July 6 he writes a column telling the world that he has done some consulting for the CIA. That might reasonably be expected to attract the attention of the spychasers of various foreign intelligence services.
As these spychasers study Joe Wilson, what do they learn? A few minutes on the internet would have turned up his on-line bio with his wife's maiden name; a check of FEC records for campaign donations would have revealed that his wife, as "Valerie Wilson", listed "Brewster-Jennings & Associates" as her employer. Elapsed time - ten minutes?
Per Wilson's "The Politics of Truth", his wife did attempt to notify the CIA press office. But did her heads-up get through in time? Let's cut to Bill Harlow, the now-retired CIA press spokesman:
Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.
Harlow said that after Novak's call, he checked Plame's status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.
What? He talked with Novak about Ms. Plame's role at the CIA, *then* checked her status and called Novak back? Per Wilson, lives are hanging by a thread all over the world, and this guy is chatting merrily with a reporter about a deep-cover NOC, and arguing about whether the reporter should believe his White House sources?
And Harlow did not want to tell Novak she was undercover because that might jeopardize her status? What did he think would happen if Novak published?
This CIA story is absurd - the press works with authorities on murder investigations, troop movements, and all sorts of sensitive things, and they can handle classified information responsibly. Back in 2003, the WaPo said this:
The CIA occasionally asks news organizations to withhold the names of undercover agents, and news organizations usually comply. An intelligence official told The Post yesterday that no further harm would come from repeating Plame's name.
And what did Novak's editor say about Novak?
Steve Huntley, editorial page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Novak's home paper, said: "I trust his judgment and accuracy unquestionably, and his ethics as well. . . . This is the sort of thing you're always faced with when a source tells you something a source should not be telling you. Do you become a second gatekeeper? Our business is to report news, not to slam the door on it."
Note what the editor did not say - no one from the CIA press office called to quash this story. No call from Harlow to Huntley, no call from Tenet to Huntley, no call from Tenet to Novak, nothing. Lives at stake all over the world, America's national security imperiled, and no one can find a telephone?
There's more. As a big bureaucracy, the CIA undoubtedly loves meetings and memos. And after this spectacular belly-flop - a major columnist misunderstands or ignores a press officer warning and outs an agent - the CIA surely generated a mountain of memos and held a multitude of meetings to determine What Went Wrong and How We Can Improve.
And Fitzgerald has all those memos, because he knows an aggressive defense will raise this point at trial, right? Sure, just as the press has reported on the many changes at the CIA press office following the Plame debacle. Or not. I am guessing here, but I bet that Fitzgerald has nothing from the CIA on this, and is troubled by it.
So, let's try for a positive case - if we accept for a moment that the neither the CIA nor Wilson were acting in a manner consistent with Valerie's cover being a deep secret, can we establish a reason for that? Sure - per Nick Kristof, Ms. Plame was, in fact, believed to have been compromised by Aldrich Ames in 1994; her operations were, as best as possible, wound down, and by 2003 she was in transition to a liaison function.
And per Bill Gertz of the Wash Times, the CIA accidentally outed Ms. Plame themselves:
In a second compromise, officials said a more recent inadvertent disclosure resulted in references to Mrs. Plame in confidential documents sent by the CIA to the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana.