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Scandal proof (continued)

BY DAN KENNEDY


TO BE SURE, there is a chance that Bush’s most vociferous critics have it all wrong. Robert Zelnick, who chairs the journalism department at Boston University, and who covered military and intelligence operations in his previous career as a correspondent for ABC News, makes a reasonable case that the outing of Valerie Plame really is no big deal, that it’s business-as-usual, and that Novak was caught up in the normal and customary business of Washington-style political score-settling.

The way Zelnick sees it (he stresses that he is merely an observer and has no firsthand knowledge), the Bush White House had every reason to think it had been set up — "hustled" — by the CIA, an agency with which it was already at odds. Zelnick suspects that the reason the White House revealed the tie between Wilson and his wife was not so much for revenge as it was to show that the CIA, once again, had undermined the case for war.

Wilson, by going public in the New York Times ("Very unbecoming professional conduct," Zelnick says), and then by turning out to be a contributor to and supporter of Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign, inspired rage inside the White House — rage that was not at all unjustified, in Zelnick’s view.

But wasn’t identifying Plame a crime? "Crimes are committed every day," Zelnick replies, noting that, during his reporting days, he and his viewers benefited from leaks regarding the progress of the Gulf War and the status of the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Ronald Reagan’s "Star Wars" missile-defense program. Those leaks, too, were crimes.

But wasn’t naming an undercover CIA employee worse — a bigger crime, in effect — than other kinds of leaks? "She’s domestically based. There are thousands of CIA employees whose identities are technically secret," Zelnick says. He hastens to add that he disagrees with Novak’s decision to reveal her identity: "I think I would not have compounded the felony, so to speak." That aside, Zelnick thinks Wilson’s ties to the CIA were a legitimate story. Were he a White House official, he says, "I would have been very irate with Mr. Wilson, and thought we’d been set up — and maybe set up by the CIA." Indeed, CIA officials are sometimes reminded — with good reason — that, unlike the president, no one elected them. In this particular instance, that truism appears to have been forgotten.

Zelnick’s theory presumes an answer to the most important question of all: what, precisely, was Valerie Plame’s job, and what horrors, if any, will be visited upon her and others as a consequence of her identity being revealed? Zelnick — like Juliette Kayyem — believes Plame was not involved in any James Bond–style exploits. But who knows?

The idea that Plame was covert, but not all that covert, has been at the heart of Novak’s defense. In an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press this past Sunday (following Wilson; too bad host Tim Russert couldn’t get them on together), Novak stuck to the line he took in his October 1 column, contending that the revelation had been offered to him "off-handedly," and that he didn’t attach all that much importance to it. And though he conceded that he was asked not to name her, he contended he wasn’t asked with much conviction.

"If they’d said she was in danger, I never would have written the column," he said. Indeed, he added, if his source really didn’t want Plame outed, all that person had to do was get George Tenet on the phone.

Novak’s account was intriguing, raising the question of when a request not to name an undercover CIA employee is sincere, and when it is merely ass-covering. So, too, was Novak’s explanation of why he originally called Plame "an agency operative," which suggests something rather serious: he said he tends to call lots of people "operatives," including "political hacks," and that it was more unthinking cliché on his part than considered description. In fact, Novak said, she is an "analyst," and he challenged anyone to look up his use of the word operative on LexisNexis. I took the challenge, and found that he has used the word about 200 times over the past 10 years. So score one for the Prince of Darkness.

Yet there are indications that Plame was not just an ordinary CIA employee with some degree of anonymity. There have been media profiles in which even her oldest friends expressed shock at learning of her real job. There is the fact that the CIA concocted an affiliation with a private company, giving her "non-official cover," which is reportedly the deepest anonymity the agency can confer. Experts say it takes a long time to develop an effective "NOC" agent, as they are known, and as a result there aren’t that many of them. There was former CIA agent Larry Johnson’s appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on September 30. Johnson angrily asserted that Plame had been undercover "for three decades" — probably an exaggeration, given that she is 40 years old, but irrelevant to Johnson’s other claims.

"One, she works in an area where people she meets with overseas could be compromised," Johnson said. "When you start tracing back who she met with, even people who innocently met with her, who are not involved in CIA operations, could be compromised. For these journalists to argue that this is no big deal, and if I hear another Republican operative suggesting that, well, this was just an analyst, fine, let them go undercover. Let’s put them overseas and let’s out them and then see how they like it. They won’t be able to stand the heat."

Then there’s Wilson himself. Though he has resolutely refused to disclose what his wife did for a living pre-Novak, he came awfully close on ABC’s Nightline on September 30. After host Ted Koppel called Plame "an analyst," Wilson corrected him: "First of all, the notion my wife is an analyst — if she were an analyst then there would not have been the referral to the Justice Department." And when Koppel averred that "the one doesn’t preclude the other," Wilson responded with this prickly retort: "Well, I think you ought to check your sources on that part of it."

Translation: Valerie Plame was a covert operative of one sort or another. Novak had it right the first time, whether he realized it or not.

SO WHERE DO we go from here? If Valerie Plame was, in fact, a covert operative, then the Wilson affair is a serious matter — far more serious than some in the media would like to believe. True to form, the Wall Street Journal’s ultraconservative editorial page has already taken to labeling the scandal a "kerfuffle," by which it apparently means that this is one of those quintessentially political dust-ups, and is not to be taken seriously.

The problem is that this is a notoriously difficult story to move forward. Novak isn’t going to reveal his source. So far, none of the six journalists whom the Washington Post says were approached has spoken, either; nor is any of them likely to.

Rumors and speculation are flying over the identities of the "two top White House officials." The name of Bush’s chief political guru, Karl Rove, has come up repeatedly, and Wilson himself said in August that he would like to see Rove "frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs." But Wilson has since cooled his jets. Last week, in an audio clip on the Guardian’s Web site, reporter Julian Borger claimed that "several of the journalists are saying privately, yes, it was Karl Rove who I talked to." But to whom did they say this? To Borger? It’s unclear.

Another name that has come up is that of Vice-President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. There’s a certain logic to that. Wilson’s mission was taken on behest of Cheney’s office, and the vice-president was reportedly infuriated by Wilson’s disloyalty. But at this point, it’s all conjecture.

So should Novak or any of the other journalists identify their sources? Arguing that they should is certainly tempting: they promised anonymity to an official or officials who then proceeded to break the law by ratting out Plame. If ever there was an occasion to break the journalistic code of omertà, one might think this would be it.

In an essay for the Washington Post on Sunday, the paper’s associate editor, Robert Kaiser, gives voice to heresy, writing that "if a senior official initiated contact, obtained a pledge of confidentiality and sought to plant the name of Wilson’s wife and her status with the CIA, I’d argue it was time to blow the whistle."

In his Newsweek piece, Jonathan Alter makes an intriguing suggestion: one of the journalists should anonymously leak the name of the leaker(s). "After all," he asks, "don’t we in the press routinely ask people in government to feel scummy and violate the spirit of confidentiality in their own institutions by leaking to us in the name of some higher public interest?"

But Kaiser and Alter are outliers on this. The traditional view is expressed by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. While criticizing Novak for using Plame’s name ("a profoundly wrong thing"), Rosenstiel contends it would be disastrous for journalism if anyone revealed his or her confidential sources.

"This is an important way that the public gets information. It’s how we found out about the Pentagon Papers, it’s how we found out about Watergate," Rosenstiel told me. "It’s a vital part of a pluralistic society. It’s a vital part of getting at the truth of things in a democratic culture."

Rosenstiel is right, regardless of what might be good — or at least feel good — in this one instance.

Which means, unfortunately, that the Wilson affair may eventually disappear unless there is some unexpected blockbuster revelation. Oh, there are the calls for an independent counsel, which will only become louder if Attorney General John Ashcroft Clouseau fails to come up with anything.

But next to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pro-Hitler comments and crude pawing of women, and Rush Limbaugh’s alleged pill-popping and racially charged football commentary, the Wilson affair lacks the sort of titillating detail needed to keep it alive. And, of course, no scandal analysis would be complete without noting the overwrought, endless coverage of Bill Clinton’s pathetic sex life. No sex here, please. They’re Bushies.

"Without the kind of electrifying information that’s needed, this will mainly be a Beltway story," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of the 1991 book Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics. "You can spin a scenario whereby this becomes really big, but the odds are that it won’t."

Another way of putting it is that the Wilson affair may already be big, but we don’t know it yet — and perhaps never will. Maybe this really is a kerfuffle, but who can tell us? Sadly, this scandal can’t be measured in nipples squeezed or OxyContin swallowed, but in hypotheticals that we will never know: foreign operatives rendered useless (or worse), overseas operations shut down, weapons of mass destruction never found.

The first President Bush once compared intelligence leaks to "treason." The second President Bush, so far, has given little indication that he even cares, although to his credit he did offer some tough language this week.

Unfortunately, this is not an easy story to tell. It may never be told. And the Washington pundits, with a knowing nod, will chalk it up to one more partisan storm that blew over before anyone could quite figure out what it was all about.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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