Who Gives a Flying Flag?

Looking at the reactions of the right-wingers to l'affaire Novak-Rove-Wilson-Plame, you'd have to conclude that, for them, national security is a sometime thing -- a talking point or a symbolic flourish, but not a real-world imperative involving actual lives, dangers, and government workings. The smears and (to be generous) fat, sloppy errors directed against former Ambassador Joseph Wilson pour forth as thick and fast as finger paint. The anticipatory excuses for Karl Rove -- who, if he did not commit actual crimes, may have at the least leaked classified information about Wilson's CIA–agent wife en route to the smears against Wilson -- pour forth just as thick, just as fast. When there's White House discipline to be maintained, who gives a flying flag about national security?

Consider David Brooks, whom many persist (but why?) in thinking must know better. Brooks has echoed the White House line, persisting in the falsehood that Wilson credits Vice President Dick Cheney with sending the former ambassador to Niger. Here's Brooks on NPR's All Things Considered (July 14): “Joe Wilson was going around saying that the vice president sent him to Iraq, which turns out to be untrue.” Ten days later, Brooks echoed himself on Chris Matthews' Hardball, where Matthews repeated the same line, specifically citing Wilson's appearance on Meet the Press on July 6, 2003. But here is what Wilson said on that occasion: “The question [about whether Iraq was shopping for Nigerian uranium] was asked of the CIA by the office of the vice president.” Here is what he wrote in his famous op-ed piece of the same date: “In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report … that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake … by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990s. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office.” Why does Brooks believe different? (Brooks failed to reply to my e-mail asking him to make sense of this discrepancy.)

* * *

Page through Wall Street Journal editorials or The Washington Times, scroll through the National Review Online, scan FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the wing-o-sphere and you'll find a cornucopia of fractionally baked and downright raw accusations against Wilson. “A fraud,” huffed the Journal's editorialists, citing Republican apparatchik Pat Roberts' Senate Intelligence Committee's tendentious cleanup job for the White House. Limbaugh wins the prize for extravagance, referring to “this [CIA] plot to bring down the president.”

One of the right's loudest talking points (see Brooks, above) has been that Wilson claimed to have been sent to Niger in 2002 by the CIA at the behest of Cheney's office. Interesting, then, that two years ago, just after Wilson's op-ed piece appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Times' own Bill Sammon wrote, “Although he opposed the war against Iraq and helped shape former President Bill Clinton's Africa policy, Mr. Wilson was nonetheless asked by the Bush administration's CIA in February 2002 to check out reports that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger” (italics added for emphasis). Two years and five days later, Sammon had gotten his line straight for a FOX News appearance. “Was it wrong for Rove to correct the impression that Cheney had sent Joe Wilson to Africa?” he asked (again, italics added). “Because, remember, that's what the original allegation was, that Cheney had sent him.”

The Plastic Man Prize for the longest stretch -- also the most laughable, abstruse historical reference -- goes to U. S. News & World Report's Michael Barone, who in a syndicated column wrote that “Joseph Wilson is our latest Titus Oates,” who in 1678–79 “accused various English Catholics of a ‘popish plot' to assassinate King Charles II.”

Far from a rogue leaker, Rove was a “whistle-blower,” said the Journal, leaping into the breach to claim that Rove only echoed what reporters told him. Valerie Plame could not possibly have been injured because she held a “desk job” at the CIA; the term shows up repeatedly from, among others, FOX's Fred Barnes, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Ben Stein on CBS Sunday Morning, and Republican lawyer and former Reagan administration Justice Department official Victoria Toensing (frequently interviewed as having helped draft the 1982 law against identifying covert agents, though her Republican affiliation goes mainly unmentioned). You see, real spies work on laptops only after changing costumes in phone booths.

Stranger and stranger. FOX News and the National Review Online's Andrew McCarthy cited a Bill Gertz report in The Washington Times to argue that Plame's cover could not have blown by the administration leakers of July 2003 because it already had been, in the mid-1990s and afterward, by -- ready? -- Soviet and Cuban spies. If so, wouldn't it take a security clearance to know? In other words, isn't the echo chamber leaking still more secrets to belittle the significance of the 2003 leaks?

Excuses, excuses: The dog couldn't have eaten the homework because it wasn't homework, it was an extra-credit assignment, and anyway, the dog has no teeth, and anyway, there was a whole pack of dogs, and anyway, the homework was no good.

* * *

To its credit, FOX News did run one trenchant rebuttal to the Republican talking points, online on July 17: “Valerie was an undercover officer ... the reality is, Valerie has no cover anymore,” said [former CIA agent Melissa Boyle] Mahle, the author of Denial and Deception. “When you're an undercover officer, you nurture that undercover” status and the contacts you make during the job, she added. “It's not so important what she was doing that moment in time because your career is linked by all of your activities and if you were exposed by [sic] being a CIA officer, bad guys are going to start looking at what you were doing before and backtracking.”

Mahle said it isn't possible, given the rigid chain of command in the CIA, that Plame -- and not someone within the Bush administration -- was actually the one who sent Wilson to Niger. “You don't send somebody overseas as an officer,” she said. “ ... We have a chain of command ... . Those kind of decisions go up your chain, so Valerie wasn't in the position of making that decision.”

All the while, respectable conservatives observed an eerie silence about the leaking of a CIA agent's identity, suddenly short of indignation that anyone in the government, on any pretext, whether knowledgeably or negligently, might have exposed a spy or, indeed, a whole network of spies. Charles Krauthammer, who chortled one year ago at the spectacle of Sandy Berger stuffing his pockets with classified documents, has gone missing over the question of whether Rove or anyone else in the White House might have leaked. So, too, George Will -- who did, however, opine last December that Time magazine should have named Karl Rove its “Man of the Year.” To his credit, William Kristol on FOX News refused to second-guess special prosecutor Fitzgerald: Wait and see, he counseled. But I can find no one on the right displaying the tiniest interest in how a forged memo alleging Saddam Hussein's yellowcake purchases in Niger got into circulation in the first place. Cats got their tongues? Or follow-the-leader loyalty?

As former Minister of Virtue -- sorry, Education -- William Bennett used to ask, “Where's the outrage?” Where, for that matter, is the curiosity?

Oh, and speaking of Bennett, he has been heard from on the subject of whether Rove leaked about Plame and her CIA career. On FOX's Hannity and Colmes (July 18), Alan Colmes reminded him that he criticized the Clinton administration's “wordplay” but not Rove's nickel-and-diming when the deputy chief of staff claimed not to have uttered Plame's name. Bennett replied, “Yes, well, why don't we wait until this has concluded, as we saw in the Clinton administration?”

Surely one of the more staggering statements that can be made about pundits of Bennett's persuasion is that before consigning Bill Clinton to hellfire and damnation during the entire year of 1998–99, they waited until any proceeding anywhere had concluded. Cherchez les Clinton! Bennett, you may recall, once wrote a book called The Death of Outrage, but that was when the burning moral issue of the day was Bill Clinton's blowjobs.

Could it be that for some of our right-wing friends national security is a bumper sticker, not an imperative?

Here is what James Marcinkowski, a former CIA case officer, said about the “unprecedented” Wilson/Plame leaks on July 22 to an informal hearing of Democrats on the Hill (informal because the Republicans who run all the committees of Congress have showed zero interest in investigating):

Each time the political machine made up of prime-time patriots and partisan ninnies display their ignorance by deriding Valerie Plame as a mere “paper-pusher,” or belittling the varying degrees of cover used to protect our officers, or continuing to play partisan politics with our national security, it is a disservice to this country … . Before you shine up your American flag lapel pin and affix your patriotism to your sleeve, think about … the impact your actions will have on the security of the American people … .

The people who defend us are flesh, blood, and brain. Is keeping them out of harm's way any more than a bullying slogan? Why do none dare check out treason?

Todd Gitlin's latest book, The Intellectuals and the Flag, will be available in November from Columbia University Press. Thanks to Asheesh Kapur Siddique for research, and to an anonymous blogger at TPMcafe.com for making the point about the illicit sources of The Washington Times' claim about Soviet and Cuban spies.

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