Richard Cohen of the Washington Post is getting pummeled in the blogosphere for his column yesterday in which he argued that the leak of CIA Valerie Plame's name was no big deal and that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald should "return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals."
Cohen, who said he's bothered by the fact that no one in Fitzgerald's office is leaking details of the grand jury proceedings to him, claimed that the revelation of Plame's identity is just business as usual in the hardball world of Washington politics. Fitzgerald's case could wind up preventing administration secrets from getting out to the public by discouraging future leakers, Cohen argued. (This latter point is well taken; the short answer to Cohen's assertion is that the leakers in this case were committing crimes, not exposing them.)
It's very difficult to believe that at this stage any intelligent commentator could in good faith dispute the idea that the leaking of Plame's identity was wrong and dangerous. But according to Cohen, since it was not the intent of Karl Rove, "Scooter" Libby and other administration officials to out Plame and "have her assassinated," there was nothing wrong with leaking her name. How can Cohen know so little about the world of intelligence?
Put aside any possible threats to Plame's life. The leaking of her identity means that anyone who ever interacted with her while she was operating under nonofficial cover in the Middle East, whether fellow agents or foreign intelligence assets, has come under suspicion. Their lives were put in jeopardy and they may find it too risky to continue providing the U.S. with vital information. The outing of Plame also sends the message abroad, as former CIA analyst James Marcinkowski asserted at a hearing on Capitol Hill in July, that "politics in this country does in fact trump national security."
"What has suffered perhaps irreversible damage is the credibility of our case officers when they try to convince our overseas contact that their safety is of primary importance to us," Marcinkowski said, referring to the ability of CIA officers to recruit spies in the Middle East. (Read the transcript of Marcinkowski's testimony here, courtesy of the Nations David Corn.)
All of this, of course, comes in the context of the fact that the United States' lack of human intelligence is universally acknowledged to be its greatest liability in fighting global terrorist networks, including al-Qaida in Iraq. Our human intelligence needs to be strengthened, not undermined. Former CIA analyst Larry Johnson responded to Cohen's article yesterday on his blog. Johnson ended his post with a point that ought to be clear by now but that many pundits and politicians in Washington still don't understand: "The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald can do is a send a clear message to politicians in both parties that when it comes to political hardball intelligence assets must be kept out of the game. At the end of the day our nation's security is no game, it is a matter of life and death."