After being caught a bit off guard on Monday, Republicans spent yesterday and (so far) today mounting their response to Karl Rove's outing of Valerie Plame. As I noted earlier, there are some situations that it's really hard to spin, and this is plainly one of them. I mean: how exactly do you explain the fact that one of the President's senior advisors outed an undercover CIA agent to discredit her husband, and that the President was so unconcerned about this that he has, to date, done nothing in response? (Though yesterday we learned, via poor Scott McClellan, that the President still has confidence in Rove. I guess outing CIA operatives just isn't that big a deal to him. And today he said this: ""I also will not prejudge the investigation based on media reports." Newsflash, Mr. President: unlike most of the rest of us, you don't have to rely on the media. You could just say: Karl, would you step into my office for a moment?, and decide for yourself.)
Still, I give the GOP an A for effort. Here are some of their talking points:
* Ken Mehlman, Chairman of the RNC, has an entire press release devoted to criticisms of Joseph Wilson. The best you can say for any of them is that they're open to dispute; but some of them are really laughable. My particular favorite is: "Wilson Tied To The 2004 Kerry Campaign For President. -- Really? You think? And why might that be? There are, of course, all sorts of reasons; and Wilson is not the only person who decided to go with Kerry after seeing four years of a Bush administration. But he joined Kerry's campaign after members of the Bush administration outed his wife and wrecked her career; and surely that might have had something to do with it. (For the record: here are Wilson's political donations in 2000. He gave to both Bush and Gore.)
But the crucial point about Mehlman's response is this: criticisms of Joe Wilson are completely irrelevant. It's not as though it's OK to out a CIA agent as long as you don't like the person she's married to. It's wrong to out CIA agents under any circumstances, whatever their spouses are like. And nothing Ken Mehlman says changes that point.
* The Wall Street Journal and others note that "there's no evidence that Mr. Rove broke any laws in telling reporters that Ms. Plame may have played a role in her husband's selection for a 2002 mission to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking uranium ore in Niger." This is true. The law against disclosing the names of undercover agents is narrowly drafted, and there are various ways in which Rove could have eluded its provisions. (Although there are lots of other laws on the books, and it's not the least clear to me that Fitzgerald is after a violation of this one.)
Again, though: so what? There are lots of things a person can do that are perfectly legal, but still both wrong and grounds for getting fired. This is especially true when your job is: Deputy Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. Personally, I think that disclosing the identity of an undercover agent in some way that is not captured by 50 USC 421 is one of them. Our President should have higher standards for his staff than just: managing not to break any laws.
* Rove's lawyer tells Byron York that Rove wasn't really trying to get Matt Cooper to publish anything on Plame; he was just "trying to warn Cooper off from going out on a limb on [Wilson's] allegations", a claim that has been repeated in the WSJ and elsewhere. First of all, this doesn't pass the laugh test. Consider this quote from a Sept. 2003 Washington Post story:
"Yesterday, a senior administration official said that before Novak's column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife. (...) "Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," the senior official said of the alleged leak."
We know the names of at least five of those reporters: Novak, Miller, Cooper, Tim Russert, and Walter Pincus. Are we supposed to believe that administration officials called all those people and inadvertently let slip the fact that Wilson's wife was an undercover agent? I don't think so. Suppose they were motivated solely by a desire to warn reporters off a bad story: would that matter? No. Again: you do not get to disclose the identities of undercover CIA agents, period. There is no 'I don't like your spouse' exception to this rule, and there is no 'but I did it to steer a reporter off a bad story' exception either. This is just irrelevant.
(The fact that at least five reporters were contacted also makes Rove's lawyer's claim that Cooper called Rove, not the other way around, irrelevant.)
John Podhoretz tries this tack: "Rove was telling Cooper the truth." -- Last time I checked, there are all sorts of ways to do something very wrong by telling the truth about something you just shouldn't be talking about at all. You can tell the truth about your employer's trade secrets to a rival, for instance, or tell the truth about military secrets to agents of a foreign power, or tell the truth about how to construct a thermonuclear device from readily available parts in a white supremacist magazine. Or you can tell the truth about an undercover agent's identity to a reporter who goes on to broadcast it to the world.
"Very slowly for the very stupid people among us:
Valerie Plame's name was not secret. The fact that she was married to Wilson was not secret. The fact that she worked for the CIA was."
And that's what Rove et al disclosed.
More generally, there's this:
"The CIA declined to discuss Plame's intelligence work, but an agency official disputed suggestions that she was a mere analyst whose public exposure would have little consequence. "If she was not undercover, we would have no reason to file a criminal referral," the CIA official said, insisting on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation."
"Intelligence officials confirmed to Newsday yesterday that Valerie Plame, wife of retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson, works at the agency on weapons of mass destruction issues in an undercover capacity - at least she was undercover until last week when she was named by columnist Robert Novak."
And that's just the first couple of articles I found by Googling. [UPDATE: In comments, Anderson points me to this post by Kevin Drum, which has a long list of people attesting to Plame's undercover status.] Moreover, it wasn't just Plame's identity that was blown; it was her cover and her previous contacts:
"The leak of a CIA operative's name has also exposed the identity of a CIA front company, potentially expanding the damage caused by the original disclosure, Bush administration officials said yesterday. After the name of the company was broadcast yesterday, administration officials confirmed that it was a CIA front. They said the obscure and possibly defunct firm was listed as Plame's employer on her W-2 tax forms in 1999 when she was working undercover for the CIA. Plame's name was first published July 14 in a newspaper column by Robert D. Novak that quoted two senior administration officials. They were critical of her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, for his handling of a CIA mission that undercut President Bush's claim that Iraq had sought uranium from the African nation of Niger for possible use in developing nuclear weapons. (...)
The inadvertent disclosure of the name of a business affiliated with the CIA underscores the potential damage to the agency and its operatives caused by the leak of Plame's identity. Intelligence officials have said that once Plame's job as an undercover operative was revealed, other agency secrets could be unraveled and her sources might be compromised or endangered. A former diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said yesterday that every foreign intelligence service would run Plame's name through its databases within hours of its publication to determine if she had visited their country and to reconstruct her activities."
I'll give the last word to Larry Johnson:
"For starters, Valerie Plame was an undercover operations officer until outed in the press by Robert Novak. Novak's column was not an isolated attack. It was in fact part of a coordinated, orchestrated smear that we now know includes at least Karl Rove.
Valerie Plame was a classmate of mine from the day she started with the CIA. I entered on duty at the CIA in September 1985. All of my classmates were undercover--in other words, we told our family and friends that we were working for other overt U.S. Government agencies. We had official cover. That means we had a black passport--i.e., a diplomatic passport. If we were caught overseas engaged in espionage activity the black passport was a get out of jail free card.
A few of my classmates, and Valerie was one of these, became a non-official cover officer. That meant she agreed to operate overseas without the protection of a diplomatic passport. If caught in that status she would have been executed.
The lies by people like Victoria Toensing, Representative Peter King, and P. J. O'Rourke insist that Valerie was nothing, just a desk jockey. Yet, until Robert Novak betrayed her she was still undercover and the company that was her front was still a secret to the world. When Novak outed Valerie he also compromised her company and every individual overseas who had been in contact with that company and with her.
The Republicans now want to hide behind the legalism that "no laws were broken". I don't know if a man made law was broken but an ethical and moral code was breached. For the first time a group of partisan political operatives publically identified a CIA NOC. They have set a precendent that the next group of political hacks may feel free to violate."
That's the thing about disclosing the identity of someone who might be a covert agent: the person who does the disclosing has no business even thinking about it unless he absolutely knows several things: first, that that person is not a covert agent; and second, that if she is not now but used to be, that none of her previous contacts, front organizations, or other intelligence assets will be jeopardized by the disclosure. Claiming that you didn't know that she was a covert agent, or that other assets might be jeopardized by disclosing her identity, doesn't cut it: if you are going to out her, it's your responsibility to find out. And claiming that Andrea Mitchell says that Plame's identity was common knowledge in the DC press corps does nothing to change this. (Side note: it is amusing to me to watch people who are ready to believe that the media lies about more or less everything suddenly assume that because Andrea Mitchell says something, it must be so.)
* But there's one GOP talking point that I hope they'll go on repeating, and that is that this is just a partisan attack. Lots of Republicans are saying this; as an example, here's Ken Mehlman again:
"It's disappointing that once again, so many Democrat leaders are taking their political cues from the far-left, Moveon wing of the party. The bottom line is Karl Rove was discouraging a reporter from writing a false story based on a false premise and the Democrats are engaging in blatant partisan political attacks."
Republicans: please keep saying this. Keep telling the American people that it's only Democrats who think it's wrong to out an undercover CIA agent. Keep saying that the only reason anyone would think it's any sort of a problem to put vindictiveness and a desire to discredit one's political opponents above national security is partisanship; that what we're seeing, as"the media and the Democratic Party come together as one to go after Karl Rove on what is essentially a non-story", is "the Democrats' behavior, the seething rage, the anger, the hatred". Because most people know better. Most people know that you just do not out undercover agents at all, and you surely do not out them to score political points. And if the Republicans keep telling them that it's only Democrats who care about this, maybe they'll listen.
Another update: I completely forgot to note the response that gets the "I am a flaming idiot" award: John Gibson, on Fox, saying that Rove should get a medal for outing Plame. Video here.