With each passing day, the manufactured “scandal” over the publication of Valerie Plame’s relationship with the CIA establishes new depths of mainstream-media hypocrisy. A highly capable special prosecutor is probing the underlying facts, and it is appropriate to withhold legal judgments until he completes the investigation over which speculation runs so rampant. But it is not too early to assess the performance of the press. It’s been appalling.
Is that hyperbole? You be the judge. Have you heard that the CIA is actually the source responsible for exposing Plame’s covert status? Not Karl Rove, not Bob Novak, not the sinister administration cabal du jour of Fourth Estate fantasy, but the CIA itself? Had you heard that Plame’s cover has actually been blown for a decade–i.e., since about seven years before Novak ever wrote a syllable about her? Had you heard not only that no crime was committed in the communication of information between Bush administration officials and Novak, but that no crime could have been committed because the governing law gives a person a complete defense if an agent’s status has already been compromised by the government?
No, you say, you hadn’t heard any of that. You heard that this was the crime of the century. A sort of Robert-Hanssen-meets-Watergate in which Rove is already cooked and we’re all just waiting for the other shoe–or shoes–to drop on the den of corruption we know as the Bush administration. That, after all, is the inescapable impression from all the media coverage. So who is saying different?
The organized media, that’s who. How come you haven’t heard? Because they’ve decided not to tell you. Because they say one thing–one dark, transparently partisan thing–when they’re talking to you in their news coverage, but they say something completely different when they think you’re not listening.
You see, if you really want to know what the media think of the Plame case–if you want to discover what a comparative trifle they actually believe it to be–you need to close the paper and turn off the TV. You need, instead, to have a peek at what they write when they’re talking to a court. It’s a mind-bendingly different tale.
SPUN FROM THE START
My colleague Cliff May has already demonstrated the bankruptcy of the narrative the media relentlessly spouts for Bush-bashing public consumption: to wit, that Valerie Wilson, nee Plame, was identified as a covert CIA agent by the columnist Robert Novak, to whom she was compromised by an administration official. In fact, it appears Plame was first outed to the general public as a result of a consciously loaded and slyly hypothetical piece by the journalist David Corn. Corn’s source appears to have been none other than Plame’s own husband, former ambassador and current Democratic-party operative Joseph Wilson–that same pillar of national security rectitude whose notion of discretion, upon being dispatched by the CIA for a sensitive mission to Niger, was to write a highly public op-ed about his trip in the New York Times. This isn’t news to the media; they have simply chosen not to report it.
The hypocrisy, though, only starts there. It turns out that the media believe Plame was outed long before either Novak or Corn took pen to paper. And not by an ambiguous confirmation from Rove or a nod-and-a-wink from Ambassador Hubby. No, the media think Plame was previously compromised by a disclosure from the intelligence community itself–although it may be questionable whether there was anything of her covert status left to salvage at that point, for reasons that will become clear momentarily.
This CIA disclosure, moreover, is said to have been made not to Americans at large but to Fidel Castro’s anti-American regime in Cuba, whose palpable incentive would have been to “compromise every operation, every relationship, every network with which [Plame] had been associated in her entire career”–to borrow from the diatribe in which Wilson risibly compared his wife’s straits to the national security catastrophes wrought by Aldrich Ames and Kim Philby.
THE MEDIA GOES TO COURT … AND SINGS A DIFFERENT TUNE
Just four months ago, 36 news organizations confederated to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. At the time, Bush-bashing was (no doubt reluctantly) confined to an unusual backseat. The press had no choice–it was time to close ranks around two of its own, namely, the Times’s Judith Miller and Time’s Matthew Cooper, who were threatened with jail for defying grand jury subpoenas from the special prosecutor.
The media’s brief, fairly short and extremely illuminating, is available here. The Times, which is currently spearheading the campaign against Rove and the Bush administration, encouraged its submission. It was joined by a “who’s who” of the current Plame stokers, including ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, AP, Newsweek, Reuters America, the Washington Post, the Tribune Company (which publishes the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun, among other papers), and the White House Correspondents (the organization which represents the White House press corps in its dealings with the executive branch).
The thrust of the brief was that reporters should not be held in contempt or forced to reveal their sources in the Plame investigation. Why? Because, the media organizations confidently asserted, no crime had been committed. Now, that is stunning enough given the baleful shroud the press has consciously cast over this story. Even more remarkable, though, were the key details these self-styled guardians of the public’s right to know stressed as being of the utmost importance for the court to grasp–details those same guardians have assiduously suppressed from the coverage actually presented to the public.
Though you would not know it from watching the news, you learn from reading the news agencies’ brief that the 1982 law prohibiting disclosure of undercover agents’ identities explicitly sets forth a complete defense to this crime. It is contained in Section 422 (of Title 50, U.S. Code), and it provides that an accused leaker is in the clear if, sometime before the leak, “the United States ha[s] publicly acknowledged or revealed” the covert agent’s “intelligence relationship to the United States[.]“
As it happens, the media organizations informed the court that long before the Novak revelation (which, as noted above, did not disclose Plame’s classified relationship with the CIA), Plame’s cover was blown not once but twice. The media based this contention on reporting by the indefatigable Bill Gertz–an old-school, “let’s find out what really happened” kind of journalist. Gertz’s relevant article, published a year ago in the Washington Times, can be found here.
THE MEDIA TELLS THE COURT: PLAME’S COVER WAS BLOWN IN THE MID-1990s
As the media alleged to the judges (in Footnote 7, page 8, of their brief), Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA officer was first disclosed to Russia in the mid-1990s by a spy in Moscow. Of course, the press and its attorneys were smart enough not to argue that such a disclosure would trigger the defense prescribed in Section 422 because it was evidently made by a foreign-intelligence operative, not by a U.S. agency as the statute literally requires.
But neither did they mention the incident idly. For if, as he has famously suggested, President Bush has peered into the soul of Vladimir Putin, what he has no doubt seen is the thriving spirit of the KGB, of which the Russian president was a hardcore agent. The Kremlin still spies on the United States. It remains in the business of compromising U.S. intelligence operations.
Thus, the media’s purpose in highlighting this incident is blatant: If Plame was outed to the former Soviet Union a decade ago, there can have been little, if anything, left of actual intelligence value in her “every operation, every relationship, every network” by the time anyone spoke with Novak (or, of course, Corn).
THE CIA OUTS PLAME TO FIDEL CASTRO
Of greater moment to the criminal investigation is the second disclosure urged by the media organizations on the court. They don’t place a precise date on this one, but inform the judges that it was “more recent” than the Russian outing but “prior to Novak’s publication.”
And it is priceless. The press informs the judges that the CIA itself “inadvertently” compromised Plame by not taking appropriate measures to safeguard classified documents that the Agency routed to the Swiss embassy in Havana. In the Washington Times article–you remember, the one the press hypes when it reports to the federal court but not when it reports to consumers of its news coverage–Gertz elaborates that “[t]he documents were supposed to be sealed from the Cuban government, but [unidentified U.S.] intelligence officials said the Cubans read the classified material and learned the secrets contained in them.”
Thus, the same media now stampeding on Rove has told a federal court that, to the contrary, they believe the CIA itself blew Plame’s cover before Rove or anyone else in the Bush administration ever spoke to Novak about her. Of course, they don’t contend the CIA did it on purpose or with malice. But neither did Rove–who, unlike the CIA, appears neither to have known about nor disclosed Plame’s classified status. Yet, although the Times and its cohort have a bull’s eye on Rove’s back, they are breathtakingly silent about an apparent CIA embarrassment–one that seems to be just the type of juicy story they routinely covet.
A COMPLETE DEFENSE?
The defense in Section 422 requires that the revelation by the United States have been done “publicly.” At least one U.S. official who spoke to Gertz speculated that because the Havana snafu was not “publicized”–i.e., because the classified information about Plame was mistakenly communicated to Cuba rather than broadcast to the general public–it would not available as a defense to whomever spoke with Novak. But that seems clearly wrong.
First, the theory under which the media have gleefully pursued Rove, among other Bush officials, holds that if a disclosure offense was committed here it was complete at the moment the leak was made to Novak. Whether Novak then proceeded to report the leak to the general public is beside the point–the violation supposedly lies in identifying Plame to Novak. (Indeed, it has frequently been observed that Judy Miller of the Times is in contempt for protecting one or more sources even though she never wrote an article about Plame.)
Perhaps more significantly, the whole point of discouraging public disclosure of covert agents is to prevent America’s enemies from degrading our national security. It is not, after all, the public we are worried about. Rather, it is the likes of Fidel Castro and his regime who pose a threat to Valerie Plame and her network of U.S. intelligence relationships. The government must still be said to have “publicized” the classified relationship–i.e., to have blown the cover of an intelligence agent–if it leaves out the middleman by communicating directly with an enemy government rather than indirectly through a media outlet.
All this raises several readily apparent questions. We know that at the time of the Novak and Corn articles, Plame was not serving as an intelligence agent outside the United States. Instead, she had for years been working, for all to see, at CIA headquarters in Langley. Did her assignment to headquarters have anything to do with her effectiveness as a covert agent having already been nullified by disclosure to the Russians and the Cubans–and to whomever else the Russians and Cubans could be expected to tell if they thought it harmful to American interests or advantageous to their own?
If Plame’s cover was blown, as Gertz reports, how much did Plame know about that? It’s likely that she would have been fully apprised–after all, as we have been told repeatedly in recent weeks, the personal security of a covert agent and her family can be a major concern when secrecy is pierced. Assuming she knew, did her husband, Wilson, also know? At the time he was ludicrously comparing the Novak article to the Ames and Philby debacles, did he actually have reason to believe his wife had been compromised years earlier?
And could the possibility that Plame’s cover has long been blown explain why the CIA was unconcerned about assigning a one-time covert agent to a job that had her walking in and out of CIA headquarters every day? Could it explain why the Wilsons were sufficiently indiscrete to pose in Vanity Fair, and, indeed, to permit Joseph Wilson to pen a highly public op-ed regarding a sensitive mission to which his wife–the covert agent–energetically advocated his assignment? Did they fail to take commonsense precautions because they knew there really was nothing left to protect?
We’d probably know the answers to these and other questions by now if the media had given a tenth of the effort spent manufacturing a scandal to reporting professionally on the underlying facts. And if they deigned to share with their readers and viewers all the news that’s fit to print … in a brief to a federal court.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.