Over the weekend, as I was eating lunch, I flipped on C-SPAN and, as luck would have it, the Democrats' hearing on the damage done by the exposure of Valerie Plame was just getting started. I'd urge you all to watch it (it's currently second on the list of "recent programs"; you can skip the opening statements by the various Congresspeople at the beginning). While Democrats held the hearing, the witnesses -- a group of ex-intelligence officers -- were not from any particular side of the political spectrum; the two whose political affiliations were mentioned were a registered Republican and an ex-President of the Michigan Young Republicans. They were there because they were outraged by the exposure of a CIA agent, by the lack of any serious response to it on the part of the White House, and by what they see as either ignorant or dishonest commentary about its implications.
This is one of the things (by no means the most important one) that has dismayed me about this whole episode: the willingness of all sorts of people who have no particular expertise in intelligence or clandestine operations to blithely assert that Valerie Plame was not undercover, that outing her did no damage, that this is no big deal. One might think that the possibility that an undercover agent's identity had been disclosed would be serious enough that people would wait before announcing that it didn't matter. And one might think that since the CIA filed a criminal referral about Plame's outing, a prosecutor investigating the matter found enough evidence of a crime to mount a serious investigation, and the judges who have reviewed his evidence in camera think he's after something quite serious, those who are inclined to think that this is no big deal might wonder whether Patrick Fitzgerald might know something they don't. I mean, should we really have to be reminded that outing CIA officers is a big deal, or that random bloggers and journalists might not always be able to figure out someone's undercover status based on their extensive reading of Tom Clancy novels and a few GOP talking points? Apparently, we do.
So here is Patrick Lang, ex-director of the Defense Department's Human Intelligence, to give us the reminder none of us should need.
"I feel particularly strongly about this case, not so much on a personal level so much as I feel that what has happened with regard to this disclosure and follow-up is a kind of structural assault on the ability of the United States to have sound and well-respected and effective clandestine intelligence services.
As I'm sure you know, the present war that we are engaged on, which will go on for a long time, I think, because it is, in fact, a war against a kind of tendency, a set of ideas, that moves around, that kind of war involves enemies that go into subway stations carrying 10-pound packs of homemade explosives. These fellows, they don't have much of a technical signature for their intelligence detection. They have no overhead photography signature: a pickup truck, something like that. They don't really have a signals intelligence signature much because they're very clever and they've gotten to be better and better at not doing the kinds of things that make them vulnerable. So in the end, what you have to have is you have to have human beings who will go and find out for you what it is they're going to do next.
And we haven't done that very well, evidently, up until now. It doesn't seem that way to me, anyway, from the outside. But it is a peculiarity of this kind of war that that is exactly the kind of intelligence that you have to have.
And what has happened here, I think is, as I say, an assault on the ability of the United States to do that. Why would that be? It's because HUMINT is about human beings. It's about one person, an American person, a case officer in the parlance of the trade, causing some foreign person to trust him enough and to trust his unit and to trust the United States enough to put his life, his fortune and, indeed, his sacred honor in many cases into the hands of this case officer and the American intelligence unit that stands behind this case officer.
It's all about trust; it's completely about trust. It's about -- I happen to have done a good deal of this kind of work in my life. And the moment in which some person, whether he's an ambassador or a Montagnard in the hills of Vietnam with filed teeth, decides that he's going to trust you enough so that he's going to believe that you will protect him in every way in doing what he is doing, which is extremely dangerous to him and his family and to everyone else, is a magic moment, indeed. It's almost sacramental in a lot of ways, really. And it imposes on the case officer and the unit behind him in the United States the kind of obligations that are as serious in some ways as the seal of the confessional, really. I mean, I'm a Catholic; I understand exactly what that means.
And the obligation to protect this person is absolute, in fact. And it's not only absolute from the point of view of morality; it's absolute from the point of view of practicality as well, because if within a practicing clandestine intelligence unit the case officers believe that their superiors will not protect the identity of their sources or their own identity, in fact, in doing things which are dangerous and difficult, then a, kind of, circle of doubt begins to spread, like throwing a rock into the water.
And it spreads in such a way so that if an intelligence service that belongs to a particular country comes to be thought generally in the world as an organization that does not protect its own, does not protect its foreign assets, then the obvious is true in that people are not going to accept recruitment, are not going to work for you. And the smarter they are, the better placed they are, the better educated they are, the less likely they are to accept recruitment and to work for you if they believe that you are not going to fight in the last ditch to protect their identities.
And so, this is all completely about trust.
In a strange kind of way, the kind of people who are valuable to recruiters, foreign assets, are a kind of community. They're a community of the well-informed and the alert, and the people who have a great deal of situational awareness. They're often in government. They're in banking or they're in this or that. And these people pay attention to what's going on. And they know whether or not the clandestine services of a particular country can be trusted with their lives. They know that.
And in an odd way, our former Soviet opponents in the GRU and the KGB, they're a good example of the fact that you have to do this the right way, because it was an absolutely never violated thing in the KGB that they ever gave up an agent permanently. They would struggle -- if someone was captured, imprisoned, tried, like Colonel Abel or somebody like that, they would work forever to try to get this person exchanged and get him back, because they knew that if the word got out, in fact, that they wouldn't do that, their sources of recruitment, the trust that people would have in them, would dry up and would go away.
So when you have an instance like this, in fact, in which not just the intelligence community, but the elected government of the sponsoring government, of the major country in the world, deliberately, and apparently for trivial and passing political reasons, decides to disclose the identity of a covered officer, the word goes around the world like a shock, in fact, that, in fact, "The Americans can't be trusted -- the Americans can't be trusted. If you decide to cooperate clandestinely with the Americans, someone back there will give you up -- someone will give you up, and then everything will be over for you." So you don't do it.
And so the very kinds of people you need to get into the heart of this galaxy of jihadi groups and people like this will make a judgment that they are not going to trust you in this way. And once that happens, then the possibility of penetrating these groups, the possibility of knowing that they're going to carry 10-pound bags of explosive in the subway stations, will go right down the drain. It will be done forever. It would take forever to get that back, because this is all about trust and this is a violation of trust."
And here's James Marcinkowski, ex-CIA:
"The exposure of Valerie Plame by anyone in the White House is the same as a local police chief announcing to the media the identity of his undercover officers. It's that simple; everybody gets that. In both cases, the ability of the officer to operate is destroyed. But there is also an added dimension. An informant in a major sophisticated crime network or a CIA asset working in a foreign government is exposed they have a rather good chance of losing more than just their ability to operate.
Any undercover officer, whether in the police department, the CIA, will tell you the major concern of their informant or their agent is their personal protection and that of their family. Cover is safety. If you cannot guarantee it in some form or other, the other person is not going to work for you; it's as simple as that. And you will lose that source of information. So the real issue before the Congress and the country today is not the partisan politics, not even the loss of secrets. The secrets of Valerie Plame's cover are long go. What has suffered irreversible damage is the credibility of our case officers when they try to convince an overseas contact that their safety is of primary importance to us. If you cannot guarantee that safety, you will not have that person working for you, because if they are exposed, they will in many cases die.
How are case officers supposed to build and maintain that confidence when their own government cannot even guarantee the personal protection and security of the home team? That's what this is about. The loss of secrecy in the world of espionage occur from time to time, and they may be damaging. The stealing of credibility of the CIA officers, however, is simply unforgivable. (...)
Think about what we are doing from the perspective of our overseas human intelligence assets or potential agents. I believed Bob Novak when he credited senior administration officials for the initial leak and then maybe the initial leak or simply the confirmation of that information, as I believe a CIA officer in some faraway country is going to lose an opportunity to recruit an asset that may be of invaluable service to our covert war on terror because the promises of protection will no longer carry the level of trust they once had.
Each time the leader of a political party opens his mouth in public to deflect responsibility, the word overseas is loud and clear: Politics in this country does, in fact, trump national security. Each time a distinguished ambassador is ruthlessly attacked for the information he provides, a foreign asset will contemplate why he should risk his life when his information will not be taken seriously. Each time there is perceived a political success in deflecting responsibility by debating or redebating some minutiae involved in this case, such actions are equally effective in undermining the ability of this country to protect itself against its enemies, because the two are, indeed, related. 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's a disservice to this country. By ridiculing, for example, the degree of cover or the use of post office boxes, you lessen the confidence that foreign nationals place in our covert capabilities, especially when they're involved in a community of intelligence collection, they know how these things work. They know how they're used. So you may fool the American public by distracting minutia but you're not doing it for people overseas. They know better.
Those who would advocate the "I'm OK, you're OK" politics of non- responsibility should think about the impact of those actions on our foreign agents. Non-responsibility means, "We don't care." Not caring means a loss of security, a loss of security means a loss of an agent, a loss of an agent means the loss of information, the loss of information means an increase in the risk to people of the United States.
There's a very simple message here: Before you shine up your American flag lapel pin and fix your patriotism to your sleeve, think about what impact your actions are going to have on the security to the American people; think about whether your partisan obfuscation is creating confidence in the United States in general, in the CIA in particular. If not, a true patriot would just simply shut up.
Those who take pride in their political ability to divert the issue from the fundamental truth ought to be prepared to take their share of responsibility for the continuing damage done to our national security. When this unprecedented act first occurred, the president could have immediately demanded the resignation of all persons even tangentially involved. Or at a minimum, he could have suspended the security clearances of those persons and placed them on administrative leave. Such methods are routine across the country in every police department, and every American citizen understands that. That would have, at least, sent the right message around the globe that we take the security of those risking their lives on behalf of the United States seriously.
Instead, we have flooded the foreign airwaves with two years of inaction, political rhetoric, ignorance and partisan bickering. That's the wrong message. In doing so we have not lessened but increased the threat to the security and safety of the people of the United States. And we have done that since the time of this first breach of trust."
That's what this is about. It should not be a partisan matter. And it should not be something that journalists and bloggers need to have explained to them.