Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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 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 <$NoAd$> 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 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 <$NoAd$> 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 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.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, many people think that where we’re heading on Wilson/Plame is that the White House will eventually say that whoever did the leaking didn’t know Valerie Plame was undercover. By some readings, that would get the culprits out of legal jeopardy since the relevant law requires intent. If they didn’t know she was undercover, then it wouldn’t be a crime. Outside the legal context it would move the whole incident out of the realm of execrable bad-act and into that of sloppy mistake.

Novak has anticipated this line, saying that he didn’t know Plame was undercover. And he’s implied that his sources didn’t know either.


But I think there are at least a few clues pointing to the conclusion that Novak and his sources knew precisely what her status was. Again, not proof, but clues.

Let me walk you through them.

First, in his original column Novak referred to Plame as an “operative.” In recent interviews Novak has tried to pass this off as an oversight, explaining that he meant it in the colloquial sense in which one might refer to a political hack, an operative, etc.

Last week he told Tim Russert …

The one thing I regret I wrote, I used the word "operative," and I think Mr. Broder will agree that I use the word too much. I use it about hat politicians. I use it about people on the Hill. And if somebody did a Nexus search of my columns, they'd find an overuse of "operative." I did not mean it. I don't know what she did. But the indication given to me by this senior official and another senior official I checked with was not that she was deep undercover.

Frankly, no one buys this. As we’ve seen in the last couple weeks there are various phrasings which get used to describe CIA employees whom we would, in colloquial language, call ‘undercover agents.’ But ‘operative’ is pretty much always used to distinguish people from ‘analysts.’ It’s hard to believe that someone like Novak, who’s been doing this for almost half a century, would make such a silly mistake. Really hard to believe.

Then there’s something Joe Wilson mentioned when I interviewed him in mid-September. “If I recall the article correctly,” he said, “[Novak] flatly asserts my wife is a CIA operative. And then he quotes senior administration officials as saying that she was somehow responsible for sending me out there.” I’d noticed that too. Novak wrote:

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report.

It’s been treated as a given that the two ‘senior administration officials’ were Novak’s source both for Plame’s being at the Agency and for her alleged role in choosing Wilson for the Niger mission. In fact, Novak has basically said so in repeated interviews.

If that’s true, why is her status as an Agency operative stated as an un-sourced assertion? Why is the sourcing noted only for the claim that she suggested sending her husband to Niger? I’d want to source both points. Agreed: I’m reading tealeaves here. But one pretty plausible explanation for this circuitous sourcing is that Novak realized that he didn’t want the line to read: “Two senior administration officials told me Valerie Plame is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.”

Then there’s one more thing.

A week after Novak wrote his column, Newsday reporters Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce wrote the first newspaper article about Novak’s disclosure. The whole point of the Phelps/Royce piece was that the article had disclosed the identity of a clandestine employee of the CIA. The authors interviewed Novak for the article. Yet the article gives not a clue that Novak ever disputed this point or mentioned that there was any confusion about Plame’s status. His response, according to the article, was: “I didn't dig it out, it was given to me. They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.”

Novak only started telling people there was any confusion about Plame's status after the Justice Department got involved and things began to heat up dramatically.

Taken together, I think these clues point pretty directly to the conclusion --- which frankly is pretty obvious on the face of it --- that Novak knew Plame’s status, and thus that his sources knew Plame’s status. If that’s true, then the ‘honest mistake’ excuse goes right down the drain.

Following up on last night’s post, I’ve now heard more information that makes me think that the denials from Libby and Abrams --- filtered through McClellan --- are really just placeholders, disposable non-denial denials.

The Libby-Abrams line --- that neither was “involved in leaking classified information” --- is, I suspect, technically true in some sense that has not yet been made clear. Or, rather, I suspect that the players involved have come up with some theory under which they feel they can say this is true.

It’s certainly possible of course that this is just a flat denial. And there’s no need for parsing. But it’s awfully hard to figure why the ‘denial’ is being couched in this very precise fashion which doesn’t even address the substance of the question --- i.e., did they disclose to a reporter that Plame was CIA?

The White House press corps gets two chances a day to put this question to Scott McClellan. To ask him to really answer the question. Why not press this point?

Somehow I think if CNN did this Fox would be giving them grief ...

The second-in-command at the information ministry [under Saddam], who spent his days reading the reports the minders wrote about visiting foreign journalists, has been employed by Fox News.

From an article in today's Guardian.