Saturday, July 23, 2005

Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word

Joe Conason on apologizing.

Under intense political pressure, once scarce information about the CIA leak prosecution is suddenly emerging from “persons familiar with the case.” Should those whispers prove accurate, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove and vice-presidential Chief of Staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby may yet be held accountable for whatever roles they actually played in the exposure of Valerie Wilson’s CIA identity — and in the coverup of that potential crime.

Accountability will never extend, however, to their eager accessories: the pundits who assisted the coverup by persistently spreading disinformation about Valerie Wilson.

Unlike officials who lie to the FBI or the grand jury, those writers cannot be legally penalized for their deceptions, let alone their imbecilities. But they deserve at the very least to be noted and remembered, especially now that one of their favorite falsehoods — the claim that Wilson’s identity wasn’t secret — has been decisively disproved.


Writing in the Weekly Standard, humorist P.J. O’Rourke mocked “the cover that Valerie Plame was using as a covert CIA agent” as “a masterpiece of hiding in plain sight … Plame was working a desk job at CIA headquarters.” How does O’Rourke know so much about her work? He doesn’t actually know anything, but puffs his “experience as a foreign reporter” to let innocent readers think he does.

Certainly O’Rourke never bothered to read the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which covers any agent who operated covertly within five years before her identity was unlawfully exposed. And despite his exciting sojourns overseas, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that whether he knows (or thinks he knows) the identity of CIA station officials working under “official cover” in some countries, he still wouldn’t have a clue about those working under “nonofficial cover” (like Valerie Wilson). Perhaps neither O’Rourke nor his editors at the Weekly Standard understand the difference between the two kinds of agents, but then basic ignorance never discourages verbal flatulence at that fine publication.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn wrote that “Valerie Plame … wasn’t a ‘clandestine officer’ and indeed hadn’t been one for six years. So one can only ‘leak’ her name in the sense that one can ‘leak’ the name of the checkout clerk at Home Depot.” It is impossible to tell where the pompous Canadian columnist obtained this information about her status at the agency where she has served her country ever since she left college. Like O’Rourke, he speaks with great authority on subjects of which he possesses no relevant knowledge, only talking points from the Republican noise machine.

“Valerie Plame wasn’t a covert field operative,” wrote National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg. Actually, she was. No doubt Goldberg was just repeating what he heard from a couple of Republican legal experts while watching TV. But he stated it as fact. That’s what can pass for informed opinion (or even journalism!) in the brave new world of the blogosphere.

Yet similar bunk recently appeared in the august old-media newsprint of the New York Times, under the byline of columnist John Tierney. He suggested that “the law doesn’t seem to apply to Ms. Wilson because she apparently hadn’t been posted abroad during the five previous years [before her identity was published by columnist Robert Novak in July 2003] … Ms. Wilson was compared to James Bond in the early days of the scandal, but it turns out she had been working for years at C.I.A. headquarters, not exactly a deep-cover position.”

What Tierney surmises about who is or isn’t working at CIA headquarters and whether their names are classified is of little interest, of course, since he has no knowledge beyond whatever came over the fax from the Republican National Committee. What is interesting is how confidently he pours forth such bullshit into the newspaper of record.


Now one would think these facts would be plain enough to anyone capable of rudimentary reporting, not to mention simple reasoning. Whatever O’Rourke, Steyn, Goldberg and Tierney lack in those fundamental capacities, they compensate with jaw-jutting certainty and zealous enthusiasm. That’s why none of them is likely to offer Valerie Wilson the apology they all owe her.

The simple reason they won’t apologize is not only because they’re too insecure to admit that they got it wrong, but because to do so would be to admit that there’s something more to the story than the irrelevancies of whether or not Mrs. Wilson was a covert agent. That would also mean that some people in the White House are liable for criminal prosecution, and they can’t allow that possibility to cross their beautiful minds.