Along the Tracks

Monday, October 06, 2003

I’m starting to get it

I’ve been - well, I guess “baffled” might be the word - by this whole “Plame Affair” thing roiling the Big Media the last week or so. Yes, if a CIA operative was “outed,” the person who outed them should be fired. Yes, an investigation is necessary to see who leaked the name and if that leak was “ordered” from inside the White House. Are we all in agreement that a potential felony inside the White House should be investigated?

Even so, the story to this point has made very little sense (Howard Fineman helps in a Newsweek web exclusive - courtesy Tom Maguire).

Here’s the condensed version: This Joseph Wilson guy, career diplomat, is sent to Niger in early 2002 by the CIA to investigate a possible attempt by Saddam to buy yellowcake. He comes back and says he couldn’t find any evidence that Iraq had made this attempt. White House says “okay, fine, thanks,” then goes out and uses British intelligence to justify referring to “recent” attempts by Saddam to purchase uranium from “Africa” (not specifically “Niger”). When Bush forwards the claim in the State of the Union, Wilson is miffed. He thinks the White House has twisted or ignored his report.

As a couple of months pass and no weapons are found, scrutiny turns toward the pre-war intelligence. Wilson first leaks the tale of his mission, then comes out (in the July 6 New York Times originally) and says he was the Niger investigator, and his work proved Saddam didn’t attempt to buy yellowcake. The Democrats and the media, of course, jump all over this and manage to force all kinds of backpedaling by the White House, especially by Condi Rice and the NSA, on the small SOTU sentence about African uranium. The controversy doesn’t quite end, but gurgles along into the summer.

Bob Novak (who opposed the war) writes a column on the subject, trying to get at why Ambassador Wilson, who frankly seems a little publicity-seeking and politically tainted (he donated to the Gore 2000 campaign) to be a trusted investigator on so sensitive a topic, was picked to go to Niger. Novak finds out Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, is in the CIA - “an operative on weapons of mass destruction.” Novak’s sources indicate that was a factor in choosing Wilson for the mission. These discoveries go into Novak’s column - July 14.

Under the radar screen, the Justice Department begins an investigation - as it does any time classified information (such as a CIA operative’s identity) is divulged (although I think Fineman makes a good point: CIA Director George Tenet could have scuttled that investigation if he had so desired). Meanwhile, the political focus is on the Niger-uranium story itself, not an interesting but secondary bit of information in a conservative’s column, so nobody even considers the fact that something unusual, and potentially illegal, has occurred. Wilson’s public accusations about the leak finally get traction, with the media smelling blood and Democrats suddenly calling for an investigation - which, as we just noted, has already been going on for about two months. The “S” and “I” touchstones of scandal - “special” prosecutor and “independent” counsel law - are bandied about. The integrity of John Ashcroft becomes an issue. Fingers are pointed at Karl Rove and VP Dick Cheney.

In other words, it’s a field day!

Still - as usual - the big media seem intent on ignoring the “real” story while focusing on political accusations and the legal mechanics of investigation and prosecution. Here are a few pieces of information you won’t generally find in the newspaper headlines or the evening news reports:

1. Valerie (or is it “Victoria”?) Plame may or may not be/have been an undercover operative, and thus, the revelation of her name may or may not be a crime. Plame’s identity is apparently rather easy to track down right on the Internet - again, thanks to Tom Maguire. That has some bearing on the “intent” of the leaker, since Plame and co. would not be meaningfully hurt by the “leak,” considering her identity was already public knowledge, if not widely noted. In this light, the leak seems more a case of political stupidity (unusual for this White House) than devilish cruelty - wrong, fireable, maybe even prosecutable, but not necessarily malicious. Nevertheless, this is a bit unclear, and may be one reason the FBI investigation is taking quite a while.

2. Wilson has been all over the place on his war position. This clearly has a bearing on how his report was judged by the CIA, NSA, VP Cheney and so on. There were, apparently, other investigations into the Niger uranium reports, so his investigation was but one piece of the puzzle. His (and his wife’s) recent political background may have come to light after he did his work (pro bono, he points out) - and so his report was set aside as being of limited value.

3. There are a variety of motive’s for the “leak.” When Wilson came out publicly with his part in the Niger intelligence, Bob Novak asked White House sources why this guy, seemingly biased against war, was chosen. The sources noted Wilson’s wife (again, her name isn’t hard to come by) was a WMD expert in the CIA, and apparently recommended him to the agency for the largely superficial, diplomatically-oriented investigation. Thus, the “leak” need not have been malicious at all: “His wife got him the gig.” ‘Nuff said. It does raise questions about how the CIA goes about picking people for (what would seem to be, at least) important assignments. Is it really all who you know, rather than how good you are?

4 (and most important). The political nature of the Iraq intelligence defense strategy the White House has employed demonstrates the worst about the Bush spin machine. Face it: The intelligence on Iraq was inaccurate, incomplete and often contradictory. Bush still was right to move forward to oust Saddam - he couldn’t ignore all those legitimately ominous reports in the post-9/11 world. The real problem is, his administration chose to “sell” the war based on the WMD-terrorism connection. This decision had two implications: A) War would not necessarily be based (simply and legally) on failure to live up to current UN resolutions, but on new resolutions targeting the weapons - meaning the “UN route” would be followed to its bitter end and the Security Council would be the arena of debate; B) Intelligence would be the foundation for all arguments favoring military action, rather than a supplement to a wider argument involving Iraqi non-compliance with resolutions, human rights, daily no-fly-zone provocations, sponsorship of past terrorism, etc.

The fact is, our intelligence was weak. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Kay report (which I’m still reading, thus no big reaction piece yet) has been misreported in the media; it is largely supportive of the “broad picture” intelligence painted on Iraq. Rather, a Security Council debate required details, photos, locations, etc., which we simply did not have - at least to a satisfactory level of specificity. I still think Colin Powell did the best he could with what he had, and that should have been enough to satisfy the council if it (primarily the French and Germans) had been serious. But duplicity around that table was always a danger, and the U.S. walked right into the trap by getting bogged down with the specifics of intelligence, rather than the easily judged matter of compliance or non-compliance.

Remember, the UN didn’t need to “prove” Saddam had weapons, had killed his citizens, was cheating on the Oil for Food program, etc. No, Saddam had to demonstrate his compliance. When even Hans Blix indicated Saddam’s mid-December 2002 report on prohibited activities was incomplete, that should have been the end of things. But by “playing footsie” with the French, we walked into the inspections and intelligence trap. Thus, the war rationale crystallized into weapons of mass destruction, period.

Since the war, the administration has tried to revive all the other quite legitimate arguments favoring war, but to no avail. Thus, it is now attempting to “politicize” the intelligence information to defend against the “Bush lied” meme. Basically, it goes like this: The White House was undercut during the lead-up to war by behind-the-scenes infighting among intelligence and state staffers, the Pentagon, the NSA and Dick Cheney’s office. The “anti-war” state and CIA were forwarding every comforting bit of Saddam coddling they could, while Defense and Cheney were diligently hunting for the “smoking guns.” NSA had to sort the wheat from the chaff. In the end, it was CIA/State’s political agenda which resulted in an inaccurate view of Iraq and a public case for war which was supported by fragmentary intelligence. The Plame/Wilson Democratic connection and the “insider” choice of Wilson as the investigator into such an important matter is part and parcel of this politicization.

That’s the White House story, anyway.

Parts of it are probably even true. There is an institutional inertia in both the CIA and State which favors the tried and true, the “devil you know,” the status quo. But the Rovian spin department overplays this to a ridiculous degree. It was the administration’s choice to follow the UN-preferred argument of weapons. This required reliance on intelligence which wasn’t reliable. In backtracking now and saying the CIA was inept or even deliberately out to stop the war, the White House is “rewriting history” just as much as those who claim there never were any weapons at all. “Outing” Plame, trashing Wilson (an easy target, granted) and forcing Tenet to admit “errors” in what was provided by the CIA all fit this “blame game” strategy.

And that’s where media short-sightedness damages the public interest. Democratic accusations and details of the specific Plame investigation are quite secondary to the need for an examination of CIA methods and analysis where WMDs are concerned; the nature of CIA/State political viewpoints and international assumptions and how they affect national security; and, crucially, in-depth study of the White House political operation, across the board, to show where defense of administration policies step over the line into politicization of areas which are traditionally “independent.”

In the end, this “scandal” story will only reach mass audiences with accurate and important information if the media shows some responsibility, integrity and work ethic. So far, that has been lacking.

P.S. - Clearly, bloggers are again way out in front on this story. The aforementioned Tom Maguire has been writing plenty on this. For more, see also, Josh Marshall with insightful criticism of President Bush’s lack of involvement; Dan Drezner with a consideration of when the White House may have first learned about the investigation; Mark Kleiman with a helpful timeline, and a rather harsh criticism of Glenn Reynolds; and as always, Glenn himself at Instapundit. Begging to differ with me, Steve at Begging to Differ says bloggers are off their rockers on this story.

UPDATE: Chuck Simmons has the goods on Valerie Plame’s “undercover” status, too.

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