Pundits on Plame: Clueless and conscienceless

Loyal GOP mouthpieces insisted Valerie Plame had a desk job. Now that we know she was a covert CIA operative, will they apologize? Of course not.

Published July 23, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

Under intense political pressure, once scarce information about the CIA leak prosecution is suddenly emerging from "persons familiar with the case." Should those whispers prove accurate, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl "Turd Blossom" Rove and vice-presidential Chief of Staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby may yet be held accountable for whatever roles they actually played in the exposure of Valerie Wilson's CIA identity -- and in the coverup of that potential crime.

Accountability will never extend, however, to their eager accessories: the pundits who assisted the coverup by persistently spreading disinformation about Valerie Wilson.

Unlike officials who lie to the FBI or the grand jury, those writers cannot be legally penalized for their deceptions, let alone their imbecilities. But they deserve at the very least to be noted and remembered, especially now that one of their favorite falsehoods -- the claim that Wilson's identity wasn't secret -- has been decisively disproved.

On Thursday, the Washington Post published the most important new fact of the Wilson case on Page 1. Quoting current and former government officials, the Post reported that "a classified State Department memorandum central to a federal leak investigation contained information about CIA officer Valerie Plame in a paragraph marked '(S)' for secret, a clear indication that any Bush administration official who read it should have been aware the information was classified, according to current and former government officials."

That June 10, 2003, memorandum, prepared by a State Department intelligence official, was previously reported by the New York Times to have been circulated among top Bush administration officials in their quest for information about Wilson's husband, former ambassador and administration critic Joseph Wilson. According to Post reporters Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei, the memo mentions Valerie Wilson, by her married name, in its second paragraph. They quote two sources saying that the document "was clearly marked" to warn readers that the information about her was classified "secret." The Post story also notes that the CIA classifies the names of its covert officers as "secret."

Pincus is among the nation's most authoritative reporters on national security and intelligence issues. Ironically, he also happens to be the reporter whose careful, skeptical reporting about the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was buried by Post editors during the political prelude to the war -- a decision that they have since admitted was mistaken.

In other words, the Post correspondent knows what he's talking about, in telling contrast with the gallery of right-wing blowhards and fakers who have lately misinformed us about the career of "Wilson's wife."

Writing in the Weekly Standard, humorist P.J. O'Rourke mocked "the cover that Valerie Plame was using as a covert CIA agent" as "a masterpiece of hiding in plain sight ... Plame was working a desk job at CIA headquarters." How does O'Rourke know so much about her work? He doesn't actually know anything, but puffs his "experience as a foreign reporter" to let innocent readers think he does.

Certainly O'Rourke never bothered to read the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which covers any agent who operated covertly within five years before her identity was unlawfully exposed. And despite his exciting sojourns overseas, it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that whether he knows (or thinks he knows) the identity of CIA station officials working under "official cover" in some countries, he still wouldn't have a clue about those working under "nonofficial cover" (like Valerie Wilson). Perhaps neither O'Rourke nor his editors at the Weekly Standard understand the difference between the two kinds of agents, but then basic ignorance never discourages verbal flatulence at that fine publication.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn wrote that "Valerie Plame ... wasn't a 'clandestine officer' and indeed hadn't been one for six years. So one can only 'leak' her name in the sense that one can 'leak' the name of the checkout clerk at Home Depot." It is impossible to tell where the pompous Canadian columnist obtained this information about her status at the agency where she has served her country ever since she left college. Like O'Rourke, he speaks with great authority on subjects of which he possesses no relevant knowledge, only talking points from the Republican noise machine.

"Valerie Plame wasn't a covert field operative," wrote National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg. Actually, she was. No doubt Goldberg was just repeating what he heard from a couple of Republican legal experts while watching TV. But he stated it as fact. That's what can pass for informed opinion (or even journalism!) in the brave new world of the blogosphere.

Yet similar bunk recently appeared in the august old-media newsprint of the New York Times, under the byline of columnist John Tierney. He suggested that "the law doesn't seem to apply to Ms. Wilson because she apparently hadn't been posted abroad during the five previous years [before her identity was published by columnist Robert Novak in July 2003] ... Ms. Wilson was compared to James Bond in the early days of the scandal, but it turns out she had been working for years at C.I.A. headquarters, not exactly a deep-cover position."

What Tierney surmises about who is or isn't working at CIA headquarters and whether their names are classified is of little interest, of course, since he has no knowledge beyond whatever came over the fax from the Republican National Committee. What is interesting is how confidently he pours forth such bullshit into the newspaper of record.

Many of the Republican noise machine's spinning cogs repeated the "Plame wasn't secret" meme, including such intelligence experts as David Limbaugh and the proprietors of the New York Post editorial page. Then again, no conscientious writer needed special expertise to understand and explain the evidence indicating that Valerie Wilson, with whom I have had the honor to become acquainted this year, was certainly a covert agent. That evidence was easily obtainable long before the Pincus story appeared to confirm it.

Spread on the public record were the basic facts concerning the prosecution of her case, which began with a direct request from the CIA to the Justice Department's criminal division, following the agency's own two-month internal investigation. It seems most unlikely that agency officials made such a request, with heavy implications for the Bush White House, unless they had obtained the approval of then CIA Director George Tenet.

The appointment of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald came several weeks later -- after the Justice Department, then overseen by Attorney General John Ashcroft, concluded that an investigation was warranted. The predicate of that conclusion by two top officers of the Bush Cabinet was that a covert agent had in fact been exposed.

Now one would think these facts would be plain enough to anyone capable of rudimentary reporting, not to mention simple reasoning. Whatever O'Rourke, Steyn, Goldberg and Tierney lack in those fundamental capacities, they compensate with jaw-jutting certainty and zealous enthusiasm. That's why none of them is likely to offer Valerie Wilson the apology they all owe her.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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