Monday, October 31, 2005

More wingless talking points

One of the most effective moments of Pat Fitzgerald's news conference on Friday announcing the 5 count indictment of senior White House Aide Lewis Libby was the following:

QUESTION: Mr. Fitzgerald, the Republicans previewed some talking points in anticipation of your indictment and they said that if you didn't indict on the underlying crimes and you indicted on things exactly like you did indict -- false statements, perjury, obstruction -- these were, quote/unquote, "technicalities," and that it really was over reaching and excessive ...

FITZGERALD: And I don't know who provided those talking points. I assume...I'll be blunt. That talking point won't fly.

Well, grounded or not, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page had the weekend to give them some new feathers, and so Monday's paper brings two willfully dishonest pieces from Ted Olson and Christopher Hitchens (free with reg.) in that vein. Hitch has clearly gone beyond the point where he can learn anything from the company he's in, so being paired with the man who argued Bush v Gore before the Supreme Court is not going to tell him much. But we're prompted to the incidental observation that having built a career on personal attacks -- Princess Di and Mother Teresa -- he was already well adapted to the Rovian technique of when, not liking the message, you attack the messenger. Here's his opener:

The Republicans who drafted and proposed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act in the early days of the Reagan administration, in a vain attempt to end the career of CIA defector Philip Agee, could not have known that their hasty legislation would one day paralyze the workings of a conservative wartime administration. Nor could the eager internationalist Wilsonians who rammed through the 1917 Espionage Act -- the most repressive legislation since the Alien and Sedition laws -- have expected it to be used against government officials making the case for an overseas military intervention.

But then, who would have thought that liberals and civil libertarians -- the New York Times called for the repeal of the IIPA as soon as it was passed, or else for it to be struck down by the courts -- would find these same catch-all statutes coming in handy for the embarrassment of Team Bush?

Of course there's the awkward fact that Fitz didn't actually bring charges under either of these laws, but for lying, in a manner whose brazenness is best documented by Brad DeLong. In good noise machine fashion, Hitch than throws around terms like "covert" and "NOC", claiming that Plame was neither and therefore that no law was broken when her identity was disclosed, when in fact Fitz's news conference (which he doesn't seem to have followed) contained the cagey phrasing:

I will confirm that her association with the CIA was classified at that time through July 2003. And all I'll say is that, look, we have not made any allegation that Mr. Libby knowingly, intentionally outed a covert agent.

As we noted on Friday, Fitz thus leaves open that Libby may have technically violated the Espionage Act while not seeing much precedent for charging him as such -- and well aware of the undesirable parallel with the Official Secrets Act if he did. But in terms of Hitch's complaints about how the latter would squelch valuable leaks if applied in the US, is there any leak in Britain prosecuted under the Act that matches what we now know was going on in the White House, namely discussions straddling several months amongst just about every senior national security official about the family background of one of their critics?

It gets worse from there; Hitch really backloads the dishonesty so let's run through bits of it:

Meanwhile, and just to make things more amusing, George Tenet, in his capacity as Director of Central Intelligence, tells Dick Cheney that he employs Mr. Wilson's wife as an analyst of the weird and wonderful world of WMD. So jealously guarded is its own exclusive right to "out" her, however, that no sooner does anyone else mention her name than the CIA refers the Wilson/Plame disclosure to the Department of Justice.

Ignores distinction between government officials with security clearances discussing things amongst themselves and similar officials saying things that will wind up in every newspaper in the country.

What if he was wrong in stating that Iraqi envoys had never even expressed an interest in Niger's only export? (Most European intelligence services stand by their story that there was indeed such a Baathist initiative.)

Most? Which ones? And when did the alleged attempt take place? Remember the forged Italian documents worked by linking an actual uranium purchase from the early 1980s with a faked one in the 1990s.

Well, in that event, and after he had awarded himself some space on an op-ed page, what was to inhibit an employee of the Bush administration from calling attention to these facts, and letting reporters decide for themselves?

Read Fitz's indictment. The White House started digging up details on Wilson when his trip was mentioned, but not his name, by articles in the New Republic and by Nick Kristof in the New York Times. His op-ed piece only came later.*

The CIA had proven itself untrustworthy or incompetent on numerous occasions before, during and after the crisis of Sept. 11, 2001.

9/11 the fault of CIA, and not some guy who summered in Texas not reading his memos.

Why should it be the only agency of the government that can invoke the law, broken or (as in this case) unbroken, to protect itself from leaks while protecting its own leakers?

But you complained at the very top about these laws. If they weren't broken, what's the problem?

None of the major criticisms of the Bush administration would have become available if it were not for the willingness of many former or serving bureaucrats to "go public."

So you mean that other than from leaking officials, there are no major criticisms of the Bush administration?

Logic and history suggest that there will be a turn of the political wheel, and that Dems will regain control of the White House or the Congress. Will they be willing to accept the inflexible standard of secrecy that they have exacted in the Wilson imbroglio? Will they forbid their own civil servants to put a case, in confidence, to members of the press? Will they allow their trusted loyalists to be dragged before grand juries, and the reporters to be forced to open notebooks to the gaze of any prosecutor? The answer today is presumably "yes," which brings me back to where I began, and to the stupid acquiescence of Republicans in the passage of a law that should never have allowed to hollow out the First Amendment in the first place

There's not much point in disentangling this melange, so instead, we just hope he is reading his friend Andrew Sullivan.

*UPDATE: Tuesday's Wall Street Journal (subs. req'd), the sane part, and thus not read by Hitch, is clear on the timing. The damning day is 12 June 2003, when the Wilson-Plame link was discusssed at top levels at the White House, including an apparent mandate to discuss it with reporters. Wilson's op-ed piece from which Hitch dates all the incriminating factors ran on 7 July.

2 NOV: Yet more links to show that Hitch's assertion that the hatchet job on Wilson only began after his NYT op-ed piece is wrong: the New Republic on how their article played a role, and Jack Shafer of Slate on the May 2003 Nick Kristof column which set the ball rolling (despite being factually inaccurate).

3 JAN: Powerline still exhibits probably willful confusion on the covert/classified distinction:

One possibly legitimate distinction between the two groups is that the Plame leakers may not have known that there was anything secret about Valerie Plame's CIA employment--prosecutor Fitzgerald apparently concluded that she was not a covert agent--while there is no doubt that the NSA leakers were well aware that they were compromising highly classified intelligence operations.

That's not what Fitz found -- see the quote above.

ABSOLUTE FINAL UPDATE: Fitz has confirmed yet again: Plame was covert, her identity as a CIA operative was classified, but he couldn't prove intent to leak her name (because of Libby's lies) so he didn't charge under IIPA or the Espionage Act.

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