Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Don't let Daddy find out!

We need more human intelligence. That means we need more protection for the methods we use to gather intelligence and more protection for our sources, particularly our human sources, people that are risking their lives for their country. Even though I'm a tranquil guy now at this stage of my life, I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious, of traitors.

George H.W. Bush
April 16th, 1999
Dedication Speech
George Bush Center for Intelligence

Oy ...

If the White House is still taking a wait-and-see attitude to how the Wilsongate scandal develops, maybe it's because they think they may get more vague and sloppy press coverage like this.

These are the first two grafs from the story running now on CNN ...

The Justice Department is trying to pinpoint the source of a news leak that identified the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a CIA officer, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday.

Administration officials told CNN last week that the CIA had asked the department for a legal opinion as to whether there should be an official investigation into the naming of an undercover CIA employee, allegedly by someone working in the Bush administration.

Someone working in the Bush administration ... I guess it must have been a deputy assistant underlackey at Commerce, right?

Note to the Post publicity department: should you comp these guys?

Here is another question we're going to get to in the Wilson/Plame scandal.

Let's say, hypothetically, that the "two top White House officials" who blew Valerie Plame's cover were in the political and/or communications operations at the White House. That's what is widely suspected. But, for the moment, let's assume that is the case.

If so, how did they find out that Joe Wilson's wife was a CIA employee working under non-official cover (in common parlance, undercover)?

It seems like someone with access to that information must have told them. And you'd figure that that someone would be someone with some sort of national security brief --- not a flack or a political strategist, certainly.

Now, that wouldn't mean that the national security person would have provided this information knowing what was going to be done with it. But you would want to know why such information would be given to someone in the White House political operation, and what the national security person thought the info would be used for.

All hypothetical at the moment. But you can see where it leads ...

At the end of July I devoted my column in The Hill to the Wilson/Plame scandal. And I asked a question that is as appropriate today as it was two months ago.

I'd put it this way ...

The word from the White House today is that they cannot comment on the two top White House officials who exposed Valerie Plame's status as a CIA employee under non-official-cover, and that the matter should be left to the official investigative process at the Justice Department.

In Condi Rice's words: "This has been referred to the Justice Department. I think that is the appropriate place for it ... Let's just see what the Justice Department does."

The only response to this is: Why? Why can't the White House act on its own?

We now know that administration officials know who did it. We can guess. But they know. They even have a pretty good tally of how many journalists were called.

So the president knows that two of his top aides blew the cover of a CIA employee under non-official-cover to take revenge against one of his critics, and that in doing so they almost certainly broke federal law. In the unlikely -- but possible -- event that he does not yet know their identities right now he could pick up the phone and find out in a matter of minutes.

But he's leaving them in place and, as far as we know, hasn't disciplined them in any way. He's waiting for the Justice Department to decide whether there should be a criminal investigation.


If this is really as outrageous and unacceptable as it seems why doesn't the president act now? The folks at the White House clearly know who did this. So why is it still secret from the public?

Of course, there's also the question of why the White House did nothing about this for going on three months. On this, see this exchange between Rice and Tony Snow on Fox this morning ...

SNOW: Well, when the story came out — his wife's name is in the paper — was it known in the White House that she was a CIA employee?

RICE: I'm not going to go into this, Tony, because the problem here is this has been referred to the Justice Department. I think that's the appropriate place...

SNOW: Well, but it is revealing, or it's important to figure out what the White House reaction was at the time. For years and years and years, for instance, the administrations chased Phillip Agee all around the globe because he had revealed the name of a CIA officer. This is a grave offense, if you have CIA officers.

Was there, at least within the White House, a gasp when somebody said, "Uh oh"? And if so, did the White House take any action, back then in June, when the story appeared?

Apparently there wasn't.

One of the big questions people are asking now is: who is that "senior administration official" who spilled the beans about the Wilson/Plame matter to the Washington Post?

Obviously there's a certain gossip value in knowing. But it's more important than just that, because the identity of the senior administration official would tell us a lot about just what's going on here.

Here's what I mean.

One scenario is that this is damage control. It's planned. And one of the president's top advisors is helping the White House get out ahead of a very bad story. The other possibility is that this really is a top official turning his guns on the White House.

So who's the "senior administration official"?

Here are some things that strike me as clues.

The article says: "Yesterday, a senior administration official said that before Novak's column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife."

This isn't certain. But the authors seem to be distinguishing between administration officials and White House officials. And I think we can probably infer --- probably, but by no means certainly --- that the source is not in the White House.

Another clue. Later in the piece it says: "It is rare for one Bush administration official to turn on another."

Again, it doesn't use the term 'White House officials', but the broader term, 'administration officials'. We know from the article that the people who leaked Plame's identity are from the White House. So I think we can infer that the source is not from the White House.

(A contrary way of interpreting this wording would be to say that the authors used the broader term in order to give more cover to their source, in order to expand the number of people who could have been the source. That's certainly possible.)

Now, if the source isn't in the White House, who could it be?

The phrase "senior administration official" customarily refers to cabinet secretaries and their deputies and some similarly ranked people in the administration. It doesn't mean an Assistant Secretary or something like that. So we're talking about a pretty small group of people.

So who seems like a good candidate? Here it gets a little dicier. But what struck me about the Post article is that the "senior administration official" seemed to know some really detailed information about just what had happened. This person said that "two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife."

At least six? That's pretty specific. It sounds like this person was privy to some sort of informal investigation or at least saw the conclusions of it.

So who would have that kind of information and be a 'senior administration official'. Or let's frame it this way: would Spence Abraham know this? Of course, not. Would Colin Powell? If he wanted to, probably. But I figure he and Richard Armitage would have wanted to steer really clear of this whole mess. And I don't know why in the course of their normal work they would have had to get into this.

Now, there is one person who would quite fairly be termed a senior administration official (SAO) and who almost certainly had to deal with this issue and know these details: CIA Director George Tenet.

Of course, this information has probably come across John Ashcroft's desk too. And he's a SAO. But to me Tenet seems like a better fit.

And there's another clue. Look at the byline: Mike Allen and Dana Priest.

Mike Allen doesn't require much explanation. This is a White House story. But how about Dana Priest? She covers intelligence and military issues.

Clearly, this is in part an intelligence story since it involves the CIA. So her work on this story could be certainly be explained by the clear CIA dimension of the issue. But it's really mainly a White House story. If Tenet were the senior administration official, though, it would make a lot of sense that Priest's byline would be there.

This possible inference I'm drawing about Dana Priest is very speculative. It's a thin reed. But I think it's worth considering, given that I think there are other clues pointing in the direction of the CIA.

Now, let me be very clear. Some of what you read in TPM is opinion. Much of it is reported fact, in as much as those facts can be confirmed. This, however, is what I'd call informed speculation. Any one of the assumptions above, or the inferences I've drawn from them, could simply be wrong. For instance, maybe the source actually is in the White House, contrary to my reasoning above. Then my whole theory falls apart. This is just my attempt to make sense of what this article means.

Late Update: The one problem with my theory is this quote from the senior administration official. The SAO not only said the leaks were "wrong" but that they were "a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson's credibility." That sounds a lot like someone from politics, someone who's experienced in 'handling' bad news stories and bad news cycles. And that certainly cuts against it being Tenet. On the other hand, if this were some high-ranking 'political' in the White House, working at coordinated damage control -- the possibility I mentioned above -- I would have expected the administration officials to be much better prepared on the Sunday shows this morning.

Just flipped on the TV and found Fox News interviewing Condi Rice. As it happened, a minute or two after I tuned in Brit Hume asked Rice about the Wilson/Plame matter. Let's be honest, I didn't expect Hume and Tony Snow to be the most hard-hitting questioners on this issue. But you couldn't watch the exchange without seeing how big a deal this is. First of all, Rice denied nothing. It was, in so many words, all no comments. More telling I thought was how visibly rattled Rice seemed. She seemed to have a hard time getting her words out. Her breathing was halting.

To their credit, Hume and Snow followed up by noting that this was a sufficiently serious charge that a bland 'no comment' didn't really cut it. But all Rice could do was awkwardly say that she wasn't going to answer questions because it's in the Justice Department's hands, they're investigating, and that this is the kind of thing that the president doesn't accept. What I took from this is that the White House was stunned by this rapid escalation of events. And they haven't figured out what to do. Or, if they have, they haven't let Condi in on it yet.

When your best argument is 'the Justice Department is investigating us and we hope they get to the bottom of it', you're in a jam.

Okay, no question: the Washington Post has the story about the Wilson/Plame scandal. This story, frankly, blows the whole thing wide open.

The Post got one "senior administration official" to concede that "two top White House officials" disclosed Plame's identity to at least six journalists. (In its totality, the piece gives me a pretty good hunch who the 'senior administration official' is.)

Here are the five bombshell grafs in their entirety ...

A senior administration official said two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and revealed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife. That was shortly after Wilson revealed in July that the CIA had sent him to Niger last year to look into the uranium claim and that he had found no evidence to back up the charge. Wilson's account eventually touched off a controversy over Bush's use of intelligence as he made the case for attacking Iraq.

"Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," the senior official said of the alleged leak.

Sources familiar with the conversations said the leakers' allegation was that Wilson had benefited from nepotism because the Niger mission had been his wife's idea. Wilson said in an interview yesterday that a reporter had told him that the leaker said, "The real issue is Wilson and his wife."

The official would not name the leakers for the record and would not name the journalists. The official said he had no indication that Bush knew about the calls. Columnist Robert Novak published the agent's name in a July column about Wilson's mission.

It is rare for one Bush administration official to turn on another. Asked about the motive for describing the leaks, the senior official said the leaks were "wrong and a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson's credibility."

How about just wrong, and leave out that they were ineffective?

In any case, this is truly a bombshell and for the first time I suspect someone may actually lose their job over this -- though loyalty being what it is to the prez I still have my doubts. Here's what this means, as nearly as I can see it. Clearly, the White House knows who those two people are. They also know that the wrongdoing did in fact occur. Perhaps most important, the public now knows that they know. Given all that, I don't see how -- in a climate of media feeding frenzy -- it will be possible to keep their identities a secret for long. And once their identities are known ...

And then there were three...

CBS reports the CIA referral to Justice over the Wilson/Plame story.

We'll be hearing about this on the shows tomorrow morning.

And of course the obligatory plug: I think we've got the most extensive and detailed interview on this with Ambassador Joe Wilson from September 16th, download it here in PDF.

And then there were two. Time's Timothy Burger picks up the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame CIA referral story and takes it a few yards farther down field.

According to Burger, Justice has begun a "preliminary inquiry" to determine whether there should be a full-fledged FBI investigation.

My understanding of these things is that this is basically the minimum that they must do in taking cognizance of the CIA's referral and making a formal determination whether or not to act on it. So in a sense it doesn't tell us that much more than the MSNBC story did.

On the other hand, it's another clue that a formal bureaucratic process has been triggered: a step A, followed by step B, followed by step C, and so on.

People at Justice can shut that process down, of course -- either for legit reasons or illegitimate ones. But these are specific decisions in the hands of people who are, at least in theory, politically accountable. Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of John Ashcroft, unless he decides to recuse himself.

So if a FBI investigation isn't initiated, people will know who to ask and they'll be able to ask why he or his deputies decided not to follow up on the CIA's recommendation.

Howard Dean is already banging the drum. And let's just say I know of a few senators who aren't running for president who want to start banging that drum too.

Now, one other point. Both the NBC and the Time story have said that the White House denies the charge. That, I believe, is actually not true. At least not precisely. On September 16th, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan had this to say ...

Q On the Robert Novak-Joseph Wilson situation, Novak reported earlier this year -- quoting -- "anonymous government sources" telling him that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative. Now, this is apparently a federal offense, to burn the cover a CIA operative. Wilson now believes that the person who did this was Karl Rove. He's quoted from a speech last month as saying, "At the end of the day, it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs." Did Karl Rove tell that --

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't heard that. That's just totally ridiculous. But we've already addressed this issue. If I could find out who anonymous people were, I would. I just said, it's totally ridiculous.

Q But did Karl Rove do it?

MR. McCLELLAN: I said, it's totally ridiculous.

That's a classic non-denial denial. Probably because, as Tim Noah noted a few days ago, McClellan just doesn't know -- and if he's smart, he'll probably keep it that way. On the other hand, the fact that Rove didn't authorize McClellan to issue a categorical denial is awfully revealing ...

As I noted last night, NBC reported that the CIA has made a referral to the Justice Department recommending that there be a criminal investigation into whether White House aides broke federal laws by exposing the identity of undercover employee Valerie Plame in order to retaliate against her husband, Amb. Joe Wilson.

Now, normally when such a story breaks the wire services will jump right on it and the other major papers and networks will report it out through their own sources and run the story too.

But according to the Google News Site, not a single other news outfit has reported the story or picked it up some fifteen hours later. In the circa 2003 news cycle that's a good bit of time.

Now, let me be clear: I'm not saying there's a problem with the story. In fact, I have every reason to believe it's accurate. And MSNBC still has it posted prominently.

But news that the CIA has recommended an investigation of White House aides for criminal wrongdoing is a pretty big deal. So the fact that no one else has picked it up strikes me as odd.