Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

For more good information

For more good information on Valerie Plame's career at CIA and, in some respects, a counterweight to Nick Kristof's informative column in the today's Times, see Warren Strobel's new piece from Friday.

More to come this

More to come this weekend on The Great Push-Back, the <$Ad$> White House's coordinated PR offensive (involving speeches by most of the foreign policy principals) aimed at knocking down criticism of the war, the failure to find WMD and the evidence of administration deceptions.

To me -- with only a touch of satire or irony -- the analogy is to the Battle of the Bulge -- a bold, but ultimately self-defeating counterstroke from a retreating army.

In truth, it's the White House's biggest exercise in up-is-downism yet. The question, I think, is how much the press and the Democrats will push back in response. The administration's great vulnerability now is its credibility -- whether it knows what it's doing or tells the truth about what it's doing. And on that count this new bundle of speeches offers a very target rich environment.

Nick Kristof has a

Nick Kristof has a nice backgrounder on the Plame scandal in Saturday’s Times. He gives the most extensive discussion I’ve seen so far of just what her role was at the CIA, and what the potential consequences of her exposure have and have not been.

One point of dissent: Kristof has a bit more of a ‘pox on both their houses’ attitude toward the Democrats and the Republicans on this than I think is warranted.

Some Democrats have hyped the potential danger to Plame’s personal well-being and/or that of her family. But this strikes me as a far more marginal exaggeration --- one weakly stated and much less commonly heard --- than that of Republicans who have tried to argue that the whole matter is one of little consequence. It also pales in comparison to the White House’s evident refusal to get to the bottom of what happened or discipline anyone involved.

But read the column and make your own judgments.

One new bit of news, or one now put in print for the first time: Plame’s relationship to the Aldrich Ames case.

Back on September 29th I wrote a post criticizing various points about an article by Cliff May in National Review Online, in which he suggested that the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot since Plame’s status as a CIA agent was already so widely known in Washington. Poor tradecraft, and so forth.

As I wrote on the 29th: “To this I would only say, Cliff, pursuing this line of inquiry/argument could lead to some really awkward surprises. Just heads up.”

Well, this is what I was talking about.

Plame was one of a group of spies that the CIA suspected, but wasn’t sure, might have been compromised by Aldrich Ames. Because of that, she was brought back stateside for her own protection, though she continued to work as a NOC.

So, yes, there were some potential problems with Plame’s cover: not because her status wasn’t a serious matter or a closely guarded secret, but because it had quite possibly already been a casualty of Ames’ treason.

In other words, you might say that Plame’s cover has been under attack for more than a decade. Those two ‘senior administration officials’ just finished the job that Rick Ames --- one of the arch-traitors of American history --- started.

Nice company.

Recently I told you

Recently I told you that Scott McClellan's denial on behalf of Abrams, Libby and Rove might be a lot less airtight than a lot of reporters have been assuming.

The question is whether one or more of these three men was the source for Bob Novak's column disclosing Valerie Plame's identity as a clandestine employee of the CIA.

McClellan's 'denials' have hinged on a lawyerly and off-point claim that they were "not involved in leaking classified information."

Listen closely: He's not answering the question.

Why not press McClellan to answer the question straight-out?

Well, today at the briefing, someone did. And, as you might expect, it wasn't a reporter from one of the big prestige outlets.

Here's the exchange ...

QUESTION: Scott, earlier this week you told us that neither Karl Rove, Elliot Abrams nor Lewis Libby disclosed any classified information with regard to the leak. I wondered if you could tell us more specifically whether any of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?

MCCLELLAN: Those individuals -- I talked -- I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this. And that's where it stands.

QUESTION: So none of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?

MCCLELLAN: They assured me that they were not involved in this.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

QUESTION: They were not involved in what?

MCCLELLAN: The leaking of classified information.

QUESTION: Did you undertake that of your own volition, or were you instructed to go to these --

MCCLELLAN: I spoke to those individuals myself.

So, when McClellan was asked to be more clear, he opted for a meaninglessly vague statement and then fell back on the "leaking of classified information" dodge.

Can we all take note of this now? That denial wasn't what it seemed to be. In fact, I doubt it was a real denial at all.

There's more there. Why not find it?

I hear an intrepid

I hear an intrepid reporter may have picked up the ball at the daily briefing today and walked it a few yards down field. More in a bit.

Meanwhile back in wingerville

Meanwhile, back in <$NoAd$> wingerville, the search for the Holy Grail, or rather an innocent explanation of the Plame mess, continues.

We pick up the story in a note from Nick. Y ....

When was Wilson's wife last on a clandestine operation? As a 40 year old mother of 2 year old twins I would imagine it has been a long time ago. Don't you?

Did the CIA change her status? Is she now just an analyst as she has been working at in the CIA Langley Office?

Is there a pay scale difference among analysts and operatives? Could it be that she retained that title even though there was no intention of ever using her again in a clandestine operation? After all she is the wife of a former Ambassador and now has two small children.

The lady may have been an operative at one time but my bet is that she was still with the CIA and would have continued her career as an analyst until her retirement and that's why her role at the CIA was well known in Washington Circles.

The CIA needs to answer some questions about this woman.

Enough said.

The quest continues. Whose heart will be so pure as to find the Grail. And what of Excalibur? And the Lady in the Lake?

Oh now thats very

Oh, now that’s very interesting.

Let’s go back and do a little more Bob Novak exegesis.

As we’ve noted before, one of the best pieces of evidence that Novak (and thus his sources) knew Valerie Plame was a clandestine employee of the CIA was that he said as much in his original column. There he called her an “Agency operative.”

People who follow the intel world say that phrase is almost always meant to refer to a clandestine agent or someone in the field, rather than an analyst.

Now, since the story blew up a week and a half ago, Novak has been telling people that this reference was just some sort of slip-up, that in this case he meant ‘operative’ only in the generic sense of a ‘hack’ or a ‘fixer.’ On Meet the Press Novak said he uses “the word too much [and] if somebody did a Nexus search of my columns, they'd find an overuse of ‘operative.’”

Well, Novak does seem to use the word operative a lot. But as one of my readers pointed out to me this evening, ‘operative’ can mean all sorts of things in different contexts. The question is how Novak uses it in this particular context. Following up on my reader’s suggestion I did a Nexis search to see all the times Novak used the phrases “CIA operative” or “agency operative.”

This was a quick search. But I came up with six examples. And in each case Novak used the phrase to refer to someone working in a clandestine capacity.

Here they are …

On December 3rd 2001 Novak reported on the surprise and even outrage among CIA veterans that Mike Spann’s identity had been revealed even in death. Spann was the agent killed at the uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif Thus Novak: “Exposure of CIA operative Johnny (Mike) Spann's identity as the first American killed in Afghanistan is viewed by surprised intelligence insiders as an effort by Director George Tenet to boost the embattled CIA's prestige.”

On November 1st, 2001 Novak described the Agency’s handling of the late Afghan resistance commander Abdul Haq. Thus Novak: “the CIA was keeping in close touch with Haq's friends but providing more criticism than help. The Afghan freedom fighter who was honored by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the war against the Soviets became "Hollywood Haq" to the CIA. He was described by the agency's operatives as ‘unruly and immature.’”

This is the most ambiguous reference. But I think it’s pretty clear here that Novak is referring to people in the field, i.e., operatives, not analysts back at Langley.

On September 23rd, 2001, Novak discussed the long decline of the CIA, particularly its human intelligence (HUMINT) and operational capacities. He made particular reference to the tenure of Stansfield Turner as DCI. Thus Novak: “Appalled by the CIA's operatives in Central America, he issued the now-famous order against hiring unsavory local agents. There went any serious effort at espionage.” Again, that ain’t a reference to analysts.

On July 5th, 1999, Novak reviewed Bill Buckley’s new book on Joe McCarthy and in the course of that review he noted how Buckley had “honed his craft well in chronicling the fictional adventures of his CIA operative, Blackford Oakes.” Now, the Blackford Oakes spy novels are … well, spy novels. So this one’s pretty clear.

On September 22nd, 1997 Novak noted to the role of “Bob,” someone whom he referred to as an “undercover CIA agent” who got pulled into the Roger Tamraz phase of the campaign finance scandal. Later in the same column Novak referred to “Bob” as a “CIA operative.” Ergo, “undercover CIA agent” equals “CIA operative.”

On September 18th, 1997 Novak referred to this same “Bob” on CNN as an “an undercover CIA operative.”

I also did a quick search for Novak’s references to “CIA analyst” or “agency analyst” I found three --- each clearly referring to people who were in fact analysts. In an 1993 column, Novak used a precise phrasing to refer to "CIA briefer Brian Latell, a 30-year career officer." Again, no vague use of 'operative.'

I don’t think this requires too much commentary, does it?

Clearly, Novak knows the meaning of the phrase 'CIA operative' and he uses it advisedly. In the last decade he’s never used the phrase to mean anything but clandestine agents.

Let’s cut the mumbo-jumbo: past evidence suggests that Novak only uses this phrase to refer to clandestine agents. In this case, when he has every reason to run away from that meaning of the phrase, he suddenly runs away from that meaning. Especially with all the other evidence at hand, that just defies credibility. Everything points to the conclusion that Novak did know. That would mean, necessarily, that his sources knew too.

The ‘we didn’t know’ cover story just doesn’t wash. Novak's fellow reporters have never pressed him on this point. Maybe now would be a good time ...

Fresh from the Department

Fresh from the <$NoAd$> Department of Damning Understatement, Dana Millbank in the Post on the president's PR blitz speeches in New Hampshire today ...

The speeches furthered the administration's shift in emphasis from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction to his desire for such weapons and the general evil he represented.

Meanwhile, more intel revelations from Condi Rice's speech yesterday in Chicago ...

We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11th attacks. Yet the possibility remained that he might use his weapons of mass destruction or that terrorists might acquire such weapons from his regime, to mount a future attack far beyond the scale of 9/11.

The possibilities are truly endless ...

They truly know no

They truly know no limits.

Condi Rice says that if the facts revealed in the Kay Report had been known last winter, the UN Security Council would have backed President Bush in going to war.

The comments are noted in Bill Sammon’s article today in the Washington Times and the transcript is here at the White House website.

The full quotation is …

Had any one of these examples been discovered last winter, the Security Council would have had no choice but to take exactly the same course that President Bush followed: to declare Saddam Hussein in defiance of Resolution 1441, and enforce its serious consequences.

Really? Is that how it is? <$Ad$> Every administration fudges, conceals, or deceives in this way or that. But, at least in my memory, I cannot remember any administration or even any administration official that so routinely says things that are the polar opposite of reality --- when the facts to the contrary are sitting right out there in the open.

Set aside all the ridiculous efforts to spin the details of the Kay Report into some sort of vindication for the White House. The one thing the Report clearly shows is that Saddam was doing far less on the WMD front than even our staunchest international critics suggested. Given that they were unwilling to go to war when they thought he had some stocks of WMD, it’s awfully hard to figure why they would go to war once it confirmed that he had none.

It’s just more up-is-downism. The same ridiculous spin as a year ago.