Friday, November 04, 2005

Redux

The Journal is at it again. For the second day in a row, they have an op-ed by a Washington Republican lawyer explaining why burning Valerie Plame was no big deal. This one is different from yesterday's installment mainly in that it was written by two people instead of one. David Rivkin and Lee Casey have made a cottage industry out of this argument for several months, and today the Journal offers them the space to make the case one more time.

This article replays several of the same tunes played by Victoria Toensing yesterday morning. But Rivkin and Casey also add a new wrinkle: "Ms. Plame's identification as a CIA employee was not a crime because she was not a covert agent." They mean by this not, as you might expect, that Valerie Plame was not a covert agent. Rather, they mean that she was not "covert" under the strict standards of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. They give two reasons. First, the act requires that the agent have served overseas in the past five years. Plame had not been posted overseas for more than five years (they choose not to mention how long it had been--six years). But in fact the act doesn't require that the agent lived overseas, just that he or she had been on overseas missions, which Plame had been.

Second, the CIA has to have been taking "affirmative measures" to conceal the agent's identity. Rivkin and Casey are fairly vague about why they believe that this standard was not met, although they make much of the fact that Ms. Plame married a former Ambassador and Ambassador Wilson listed her as his wife in Who's Who. So let's review:

Valerie Plame's existence . . . . not a secret
Valerie Plame's marriage to Joe Wilson . . . . not a secret
Valerie Plame's employment at the CIA . . . . secret

The fact that Valerie Plame, energy consultant, was married to Joe Wilson, consultant and ex-Ambassador, in no way made it obvious that Valerie Plame was in fact a CIA agent. The Journal and the authors ought to be embarrassed at the quality of this argument. From here, the article descends into frantic handwaving, as the authors insist that the Espionage Act must not mean what it says, and that Joe Wilson is a very bad man.

All of this dust and smoke is kicked up to make the case that Valerie Plame just missed qualifying as a covert agent under the IIPA, either because of the precise timing of her foreign postings, her marriage to a man of whom the authors disapprove, or something (anything) else. And, indeed, the IIPA is a narrowly crafted law that the White House officials who leaked Plame's identity may have just barely avoided violating.

But the authors' case is not just that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby behaved legally, but that they behaved ethically. And they acknowledge that "the ethical standard for government officials must be higher than a mere avoidance of criminality." But they go on to define ethical conduct in an eccentric way.

"This was not a retaliatory attack on Ms. Plame," they assure us. But of course, no one supposes that Rove and Libby were retaliating against Wilson's wife. They were retaliating against Wilson, and attempting to discredit him. And they did so by revealing the identity of a covert agent. Bizarrely, this is Rivkin and Casey's defense, when they say that "How he [Wilson] got the job was highly relevant to the public debate he himself initiated over his conclusions, and especially as a means of rebutting any implication that he was selected by, or reported to, Vice President Cheney." Since Rove and Libby were merely attempting to smear a political opponent, Rivkin and Casey claim, their exposure of a US intelligence operative couldn't have been unethical.

But this, of course, has it exactly backwards. When Rove and Libby exposed Plame, obviously they did it for a reason. But the fact that they really wanted to make sure no one listened to Joe Wilson, and really believed no one should, doesn't exempt them from the duty to behave ethically in making their arguments. If it did, it would hardly be possible for an administration official, or anyone else, to behave unethically.

The simple fact of the matter is, Rove and Libby exposed a covert agent for domestic political reasons. The facts may or may not fit within the bounds of a particular law, and if Rove and Libby have not violated any law then of course they should not go to prison. But desperately parsing the details of Valerie Plame's last overseas posting and Joe Wilson's biography in Who's Who doesn't change the fact that her status and her contacts were classified information of serious significance to national security. And pleading that it was politically important to the administration to smother Wilson's allegations doesn't constitute a rebuttal to the fundamental issue at all. Rove and Libby preferred to sacrifice the contacts and career of a US intelligence operative than to let a New York Times op-ed go unchallenged. That tells us all we need to know about them, and the Journal editorial board's running defense of their actions tells us all we need to know about it.