Thursday, July 28, 2005

Christopher Hitchens: Why has such a Smart Guy Written such a Dumb Article?

In Tuesday’s Slate, Christopher Hitchens has a go at a "nutty little law," the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. He attacks it with characteristic verve, arguing that:
  1. The left correctly opposed the IIPA when it was enacted in 1982, but now "a law that scars the First Amendment has become the favorite legislation of the anti-war left." Why? Partly because "senior Republicans . . . regard the CIA with open suspicion."
  2. The CIA draws from the IIPA "a reserve strength. It can and does leak against the Defense Department. But if anyone leaks back at it, there is a nutty little law, passed back in 1982, that can criminalize the leaker."
  3. Karl Rove did not violate the IIPA, because apparently "he did not, and did not intend to, expose Valerie Plame in any way."
  4. The CIA "catastrophically failed the country in respect of defense against suicidal attack." [If it has occurred to Hitchens that anyone in government failed other than the CIA, he doesn’t say so.]
  5. Because of the IIPA, "we cannot even debate this without the risk that those who are seeking the true story will end up before a grand jury, or behind bars!" [And what is it that we can’t debate? Check out Hitchens’s last paragraph. Amazing that Slate puts this stuff in print.]

Hitchens’s points are either appallingly misleading or flatly wrong.

  1. Because of the arguments made by civil libertarians in 1982, the IIPA was watered down from earlier versions so that the version that finally passed applies only to situations in which current and former government officials deliberately expose the identities of covert agents. It does not apply to journalists, nor to inadvertent disclosures. Only one prosecution has occurred under this law. So the law as enacted is hardly a major threat to the First Amendment, and liberals can support enforcement of this law without hypocrisy.
  2. The IIPA prohibits disclosure of the identity of covert agents. It does not give the CIA some special license to leak, nor does it prohibit other agencies from leaking information about the CIA, with the exception of the identities of covert agents. So, to take a purely hypothetical example, if in 2003 the CIA had leaked information about how Ahmed Chalabi had the Pentagon wrapped around his little finger, and the Pentagon leaked information about how the CIA had screwed up pre-war intelligence, the IIPA would have nothing to say about either case.
  3. Rove certainly did expose the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, at a minimum to Matt Cooper. A question remains as to whether she was a covert agent as defined under the IIPA. Hitchens has no basis for claiming that Rove’s intentions were innocent.
  4. Hitchens hates the CIA in part because CIA analysts were not enthusiastic about the invasion of Iraq, and because they opposed the Wolfowitz/Feith/Chalabi approach to managing post-war Iraq. So he blames the CIA for 9/11. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. For instance, Richard Clarke persuasively showed in Against All Enemies how uninterested was the Bush national security team in terrorism, al Queda, and coordinating intelligence information, and how this lack of interest prevented the sorts of efforts that might have prevented 9/11.
  5. Exactly why can’t we have a debate about this? Who is in danger of ending up behind bars? Hitchens isn’t exactly clear about this, he seems to be saying because the IIPA exists, prosecutors can investigate possible violations of it, and in so doing arrest both leakers and the journalists they leak to, if the latter refuse to cooperate with the investigation. But this is absurd. Administration officials can participate in the debate all they want. They can even leak information all they want without falling foul of the IIPA, as long as they’re not leaking the identity of a covert agent. Hitchens seems to think that Plame’s identity was essential to the debate, but he doesn’t explain why Rove couldn’t have accomplished his role in trashing the CIA in this debate by saying– "Wilson was sent to Niger by those idiotic traitors at the CIA, and he is doing their bidding when he falsely attacks the patriots in the White House who blah blah blah." How, exactly, did exposing Plame contribute to the debate? How would refraining from exposing her inhibit the debate? While the jailing of journalists is a legitimate subject for concern, there’s nothing special about the IIPA that endangers journalists. This concern arises any time a journalist possesses evidence that a law has been violated and refuses to share that information with authorities. Moreover, it isn’t even certain that prosecutor Fitzpatrick is investigating violations of the IIPA; he may be using other statutes, such as the Espionage Act of 1917, whose provisions are less limiting to prosecutors than those of the IIPA.

Hitchens is a smart guy. So why has he written such a dumb article?

(minor edits for clarity since original posting)