Monday, July 25, 2005

The Rove/Plame Scandal: Back to Basics

The lefty blogosphere has been up in arms for the last three weeks about Karl Rove’s role in leaking Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative to journalists. Citizen Cain agrees that Rove’s behavior is an outrage, and that it is a scandal that President Bush has not fired him.

But the lefty blogosphere has strayed from hammering home a fairly simple, straightforward case that is backed by overwhelming evidence, and has confused it by pursuing numerous diversions that are of lesser relevance and harder to prove. As a result, right-wing politicians and journalists have been able to do battle on this issue on much more solid ground than they would if we got back to basics on this scandal, and pushed the mainstream media to demand answers on the basics of the scandal. Having swatted away the weaker, more peripheral parts of the case, Rove's defenders can claim that they just can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

But before we explain the basics, what are those diversions?

  • Karl Rove committed a crime. Well, perhaps so. But arguing the case in terms of whether a crime has been committed allows Rove’s defenders stronger ground than they deserve, because it is not yet clear whether the evidence will be sufficient to prove violation of criminal statutes beyond a reasonable doubt. Before insisting on this point, let’s wait to see what prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald comes up with.
  • Rove was trying to destroy Valerie Plame’s career to punish her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for challenging the Administration’s case for war. Maybe. But to prove this, we would have to show that Rove knew that Plame had undercover status, and that revealing this status would harm her CIA career. Right now, there are some suggestions that Rove might have seen a State Department memo that indicated that Plame’s status was “secret,” but these are only suggestions.
  • Rove’s actions have done terrible damage to national security, and compromised intelligence sources on weapons of mass destruction. Pure conjecture. Might be true, but there’s no hard evidence to support this position, just speculation on what the consequences might have been.
  • Rove actions were part of a campaign to misuse intelligence to support the Iraq War. I actually agree with this one, but I still don’t think it’s the central part of the scandal. There are better examples of the misuse of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war than the assertion that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. Moreover, Rove’s defenders can plausibly make the case that Rove’s discussions with reporters were legitimately challenging misperceptions about the genesis of Wilson’s trip to Niger (he wasn’t sent by Vice President Cheney), about whether Cheney received a report from Cheney’s trip (he didn’t), and whether Wilson discovered evidence on his trip that refuted the assertion that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Africa (he didn’t).

So, what are the basics of the case? What should the lefty blogosphere be hammering on relentlessly? What questions should reporters by asking the White House every day? Start by basing the case on what we already know with reasonable certainty.

  • Rove was reckless with classified information. The record is clear. Rove told Time's Matt Cooper that Ambassador Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent. He may also have confirmed this fact to Robert Novak. So how about we stop asking whether Rove knew that Plame’s identity was secret, and instead ask whether Rove took any steps to find out whether Plame’s identity was secret before revealing it, or confirming it.
  • Rove’s cavalierly disregarded the potential consequences of his actions on national security and the safety of intelligence sources. We don’t know the damage assessment. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that no harm was done, certainly this does not excuse Rove’s actions unless he somehow knew that no harm would be done. A police officer who fires his gun into a crowd of innocent people should be fired, even if his bullets don’t hit anyone.
  • Rove acted irresponsibly for a petty reason. The most plausible interpretation of Rove's motives (and the most generous to him) is that he revealed that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA was a way making more vivid the point that Wilson got his Niger assignment through inside CIA connections, rather than through a commission from the Vice President's office. Surely Rove could have clarified the institutional origins of Wilson's trip without throwing in this detail. Doing so was gratuitous.
  • Absence of proven criminality isn’t a high enough standard for White House staff, especially those who have access to sensitive intelligence information. Rove may or may not be indicted, and if he’s indicted, he may or may not be convicted. But, Rove is clearly someone who has recklessly leaked secret information to reporters in cavalier disregard for the consequences to the careers and safety of U.S. intelligence agents and for the implications to national security.
The question to be asking: Mr. President, given these facts, why is someone like Karl Rove still working for you?