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Making sense of the leaks and counter-leaks in Plamegate.

The George W. Bush administration quickly established a reputation as a leak-proof boat after taking the helm from the undisciplined Clinton blabbermouths. Instead of spraying from a fire hose, the Bush ministry of information dispenses data to the press with the parsimony and precision of an eyedropper, and throttling the voices inside the administration who try to speak off-topic.

So, when leaks flow from the Bush administration, they almost invariably represent an official position and are calculated to win the president good press. But given the Bushies’ skill at strategic leaking, one wonders how its whisperers botched their mission so badly in leaking the Wilson-Plame story to Robert Novak.

(For those joining the story late: Novak blew the cover of CIA officer Valerie Plame, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV’s wife, in a July 14, 2003, column. Wilson, you may recall, went to Africa in 2002 at the behest of the CIA to investigate claims that Iraq had shopped for yellowcake uranium in Niger. Wilson officially discounted the Iraqi yellowcake rumor in secret debriefings and then earned the enmity of the Bushies when he went public with his findings in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed. Novak’s column also reported that Plame continued working on seeking out information about weapons of mass destruction and stated that she had suggested Wilson for the Niger assignment. Novak’s assertion that Plame got Wilson the job is much contested and is probably false.)

To even casual observers of Washington folkways, the Bush administration’s Wilson-Plame leak makes as much sense as the White House ordering a break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters five months before the incumbent president is poised to smother his Democratic opponent in a landslide. The potential blowback from a leak that outs a covert CIA officer in hopes of discrediting a Bush administration critic would fail the cost-benefit analysis of even the blackjack player who habitually says “hit me” to the dealer whenever he’s holding 20.

So, why did the Bushies do it? Wilson says they outed his wife to intimidate future truth-tellers from challenging the administration. Slate’s Chatterbox columnist, Timothy Noah, takes the nepotism line, writing that the leakers sought to undercut Wilson by giving the impression that he was such a no-talent wuss that he had to get his job through his wife.

Elsewhere in Slate today, Chris Suellentrop explores the more plausible theory that the leakers were carrying water for administration neoconservatives who think the CIA squishy on terrorism. If the neocons’ primary goal was to paint Wilson as a CIA stooge, disclosing the identity of his WMD-specialist wife might demonstrate that he was sleeping with the CIA—both figuratively and literally. (This Oct. 1 editorial from the neocon Wall Street Journal and this Oct. 2 op-ed by former Journal op-ed page hand Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times buttress this theory by explaining that Leakgate is really about the CIA’s failings in gathering intelligence on terrorists, not the politics of personal destruction.)

Whether the leak’s intended target was the CIA institutionally or Wilson and Plame personally, three things suggest themselves: the solicited reporters who passed on the story probably thought it wasn’t news; Novak was an odd choice to leak to; and he didn’t do the leakers any favors with the column he subsequently produced.

Imagine yourself as one of the six reporters that the Washington Post says were offered the leak. Unless you had strong neocon leanings or thought the CIA a nest of idiots, would you rush into print—or onto the air—a story promoting the idea that Wilson’s Niger investigation lacked credibility because his CIA wife worked the WMD beat? I suspect that the reporters took the tip, expressed their thanks for the information, and then sat on the story because the headline, “The Neocons—Who’ve Hated the CIA Since the ‘70s—Still Hate It,” isn’t news on this or any other planet. Surely they decided it’s more sensible to cultivate the leakers for future use.

Why then did Robert Novak run with the story? I suspect that once the leakers swung and missed with the major news organizations, they decided to leak to the next tier down—to high-profile opinion journalist Novak, whose syndicated column runs in the Washington Post and who appears regularly on The Capital Gang and Crossfire. Given his well-known positions on Israel and his opposition to the war on Iraq, he couldn’t have been the leakers’ first pick. Perhaps they had given up on enticing a journalist into writing a piece from their point of view and hoped merely to get the information in play. Whatever the leakers’ objective, Novak did not serve them very well. I defy anyone to read Novak’s now-famous column and summarize it coherently. The brief discussion of Plame and her shadowy occupation seems gratuitous in the larger frame of the article, which, if anything, sympathizes with Wilson’s view that the case for war wasn’t properly made.

If anybody doubts that presidential administrations leak in such craven and calculated ways, allow me to quote President Clinton’s press secretary Dee Dee Myers on the art of the official leak. Speaking in a roundtable for Stephen Hess and Marvin Kalb’s new book from the Brookings Institution Press, The Media and the War on Terrorism, Myers explains the administration/press dance from her vantage point:

Well sure, press secretaries leak, selectively leak, for a lot of different reasons. It’s selective placement. … There’s the kind of leak where you give a story to a particular news organization that you think will either get maximum coverage in a way you think will be helpful to you, or you think a particular reporter has a particular understanding or sensitivity to the issue; maybe they have a particular background in it so your think you’ll get a fairer hearing. …There’s a leak that happened all too frequently in my experience with the White House, which is people trying to push the president in one direction. The executive branch of the government is a cauldron of competing ideas. Everybody wants the president to come down on their side.

In describing the administration as a beast with many different views, all struggling to be heard, Myers ends up endorsing the views of one of my journalistic gurus, Edward Jay Epstein. In a July 1974 Commentary piece, Epstein describes the average journalist’s “unwillingness to see the complexity of bureaucratic in-fighting and of politics within the government itself.” Government is no monolith, he explains, and its competing interests and agencies are always at war with one another.

True to Epstein’s formula, competing White House interests took a hammer to the Wilson-Plame leakers, according to Mike Allen and Dana Priest’s Sept. 28 Washington Post story, signaling internal White House strife. An anonymous senior administration official (a non-con?) denounced the leakers, saying the leak was “meant purely and simply for revenge.” Allen and Priest continue:

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.”

But don’t look for the bloodletting to end with Bush administration officials dissing one another in the Post. On Page One of the Oct. 2 New York Times, reporter James Risen describes how the leak has re-energized an ongoing struggle that pits “intelligence professionals, who say information about Iraq’s weapons programs were distorted by the Bush administration,” against “the White House and Pentagon” who dismiss the agency as overly cautious. It’s only the latest chapter in a “culture war” between the CIA and the Pentagon and the White House, one former senior CIA official anonymously tells Risen.

Readers find themselves in the position of an audience watching a play in which the curtain is drawn. We hear the noise of voices and shuffling feet and an occasional scream, but can’t follow the story. That’s not likely to change overnight, but if this scandal spreads and the dueling leaks continue to stream in from anonymous and thinly veiled sources, don’t automatically expect the newspapers and the networks to decode the messages. You’ll have to do it yourself. Ask, Who leaked?Why did they leak? Who was hurt and helped by the leak?Which reporters carried water for their sources? And most important, Which sources spoke most candidly and honestly on the record, and where were their voices heard?


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