The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State

Here are some speculative thoughts on the Plame Affair seen through the prism of two familiar DNI themes: the Decline of the State and 4GW.  We will start slowly, attempting to clear away details that obscure the important underlying meanings.What is the Plame affair not about?

1.  This is not a policy dispute, certainly not over the decision to invade Iraq.

Excerpt from Special Counsel Fitzgerald’s Press Conference on October 28:

FITZGERALD: This indictment is not about the war. This indictment’s not about the propriety of the war. And people who believe fervently in the war effort, people who oppose it, people who have mixed feelings about it should not look to this indictment for any resolution of how they feel or any vindication of how they feel.

Both parties overwhelmingly voted for the war, to the extent Congress actually votes on anything these days. Hillary is an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq Expedition. Kerry campaigned as an experienced Warrior on a platform of staying the course in Iraq. Now he boldly advocates withdrawing 20,000 US troops after the December 17 Iraq elections.

The domestic opposition to the War centers on the political extremes. The left seems more vocal, but fringe right-wing figures such as Patrick Buchanan and William Lind have actively opposed it from the beginning.

2.  It’s not about disclosure of a covert agent’s identity

Much of the commentary on this is guilty of Assuming a Fact Not In Evidence.  Plame’s status in the CIA is the central conundrum of the story, the foundation for the Left’s lurid descriptions of our damaged National Security and calls for Impeachment.

Libby’s indictment does not even attempt to establish that Plume’s status was protected under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. It appears impossible to do so according to the little information publicly known.

Text of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982:

(4) The term “covert agent” means-

(A) a present or retired officer or employee of an intelligence agency or a present or retired member of the Armed Forces assigned to duty with an intelligence agency –

(i) whose identity as such an officer, employee, or member is classified information, and
(ii) who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States; or

(B) a United States citizen whose intelligence relationship to the United States is classified information, and –

(i) who resides and acts outside the United States as an agent of, or informant or source of operational assistance to, an intelligence agency, or
(ii) who is at the time of the disclosure acting as an agent of, or informant to, the foreign counterintelligence or foreign counterterrorism components of the Federal Bureau of Investigation;(C) an individual, other than a United States citizen, whose past or present intelligence relationship to the United States is classified information and who is a present or former agent of, or a present or former informant or source of operational assistance to, an intelligence agency.

Libby’s indictment alleges that her employment at the CIA was “classified” and the “underlying crime” is the release of classified information.  On the other hand, the Federal Government classifies almost everything of interest.  If disclosing such material becomes a crime, doing so becomes like exceeding 55 mph on the highway in the old days  – “It is the Law”, but everyone did it anyway.

Some have speculated that a covert goal of the Libby indictment is to establish a de facto version of the UK’s Official Secrets Act. If he succeeds with this a major blow to American liberties, the civil libertarians on the Left will have been his key enablers. How loud will be their screams of outrage when one of their own is prosecuted on these terms?

Knowledgeable analysts, such as George Friedman of Stratfor, have gone beyond the law and implied that, irrespective of the actual law, revealing the name even a formerly covert agent is a betrayal of the public trust.

There is an explicit and implicit contract between the United States and its NOCs. It has many parts, but there is one fundamental part: A NOC will never reveal that he is or was a NOC without special permission. … The government also makes a guarantee — it will never reveal the identity of a NOC under any circumstances and, in fact, will do everything to protect it.   (“The Importance of the Plame Affair”, 17 October 2005)

This argument has some weak spots.  Despite the rumors, there seems only a weak foundation in the public domain for claiming that Plame was a NOC (non-official cover). That is, leaks provide much of what we “know” – one of the many ironies in the Plame affair.  Until we know more we’re discussing what are only highly political rumors, probably not circulated by philanthropists.

Revealing her status might have large consequences for the people with whom she worked, or none.  We, the public, do not know at this point.

Media reports suggest that Plame returned to a Langley desk job approximately 1997, before marrying and having children. There are some indications – nothing definitive — from reports on the behavior of Plame, the CIA, and others in this affair that – until it became politicized, and everyone adopted positions to their political advantage – they all acted as though her identity required no special concealment.

This is consistent with Novak’s claim to have checked with the CIA before publishing the article that ignited this firestorm.

As a professional journalist with 46 years experience in Washington, I do not reveal confidential sources. When I called the CIA in July, they confirmed Mrs. Wilson’s involvement in a mission for her husband on a secondary basis, who is — he is a former Clinton administration official. They asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else. According to a confidential source at the CIA, Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative, and not in charge of undercover operatives. So what is the fuss about, pure Bush-bashing?

One interpretation is that her status was not considered sensitive information after her return to the US, either by her or the CIA. There is the simplest alternative, and one ignored by the Special Prosecutor and his indictment. No righteous indignation is warranted, however enjoyable, unless this is established by more than rumors.

To repeat … let’s not overrun our information. We still know little more than rumors.

Moving to a more vital issue, do we want a nation where the law no longer provides the basis for determining a crime, but instead one must obey a vague penumbra around the law – as determined by the Government after the fact? Friedman does discuss the specifics of the 1982 Act, nor attempt to apply it to Plame.  Friedman might not consider an indictment based on what the law should say so convincing if it was his neck at stake.

What conclusions might we draw from the Plame affair?

First – and most obvious – cooperating with Government investigators has become a no-win game. Like Martha Stewart, Libby stands accused of a crime that resulted from events during an investigation – with no prior crime even alleged.  Libby seems accused of having recalled conversations that took place years ago differently than do some reporters.  This suggests “I don’t recall” is the only reasonable answer, except for matters of clear fact and/or evidence, when talking with Government agents and prosecutors. As the Libertarians have long warned, the State is not your friend.

Second, scandals appear to be replacing policy disputes as the major form of conflict between American political parties.  As the differences between the two political parties shrink, and they increasingly become alliances for distribution of patronage (use of regulatory power, Government jobs and money), their conflicts move from elections over policy differences to direct “jousting” among power centers, media, agencies, academics, courts, prosecutors, etc.

It’s one thing for the voters to toss the Administration out. It’s another for non-democratic power games to have grown sufficient to do so. We’re not yet there, despite Clinton’s impeachment and intense efforts of the Left to cripple Bush. But the trend of events is clear.

The other aspect of this process is the shift of power away from the voters. Formerly citizens, now consumers. Power shifts to the bureaucracy, the Courts, non-governmental organizations (increasingly funded with public funds) – away from the people.

There are obvious parallels with Late Republic Rome.

Third, perhaps we see an evolution of the popular image of a “secret agent.” In popular fiction agents were outlaws, operating without institutional protection and beyond the scope of society’s rules. “If caught or captured, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge …”

Now we have the Plame affair, where the outrage over revelation an agent’s identity is perhaps more intense as the agent is a women. Is it time for a kinder, more nurturing attitude towards our intelligence community?

Plame’s husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, spoke of “Our 27 months of hell.” (LA Times, 29 October 2005)  This seems a bit over the top, inviting an alternative perspective. “Months of Hell” appears to mean celebrity as heroes to the political Left, a Vanity Fair photo spread, and perhaps future wealth from speaking tours plus one or more book deals.  No wonder rumors circulate that she plans to retire soon.  They’ve hit the jackpot.  All they lack to become the perfect American success story is to win a massive lawsuit. Media rumors suggest that they plan to do just that.

On a deeper note, Martin van Creveld has described in several works, such as Men, Women,and War, how expanding the role of women in military forces changes their institutional dynamics in often-unpredicted ways. He believes this makes Armies less able to effectively fight.  Perhaps the same is true in some fashion of intelligence agencies.

Last and perhaps most important, there are indications that the CIA is dealing itself more cards in the policy-making game.  That makes sense from an institutional dynamics view.  The CIA has shown itself only borderline (or less) competent in its primary functions of intelligence collection and covert operations. Worse, competition steadily erodes its previously dominant role in both fields:

  • The CIA has become only a strap in the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The FBI expands its intelligence capabilities
  • Special Forces expands its covert operations.

Stratfor nicely summarizes the situation in this excerpt from The Crisis in the CIA by George Friedman (18 November 2004):

The CIA has consistently failed to identify major historical events:

  • It failed to predict the North Korean invasion of South Korea or the Chinese intervention.
  • It failed to forecast or clearly understand the Sino-Soviet split.
  • It failed to understand the nature of the Cuban revolution until after Castro was in power.
  • It did not know that the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and were prepared to use them in the event of an American invasion.
  • It failed to understand the probable course of the Vietnam War.
  • It failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union.

… The greatest capability of the CIA – and the intelligence community in general – is covert operations that gather information from a nation’s leadership. The CIA is not perfect at this, but it is outstanding. However, an event that involves non-nation-state actors (such as Castro, prior to the Cuban revolution) or more important, in which the leaders of the nation-state are themselves unaware, leaves the CIA helpless. …

The problem the CIA has is that it also failed in what was supposed to be its sweet spot — covert gathering of intelligence from senior state officials in Iraq concerning a war that had been going on, in effect, since 1990. There were no surprises here, no discontinuities, no funky, off-the-wall groups. This was mainline intelligence-gathering. …

The consistent inability of the CIA to capture hard-to-source discontinuities is not a charming foible, but an unacceptable shortcoming.

Hence, the CIA compensates by expanding its role in the realm of policy-making — an easier bureaucratic response than deep reform.  So we have …

  • The appointment of a Clinton appointee to investigate key claims prior to the Iraq Expedition.
  • The publication of Imperial Hubris, by Anonymous, a serving CIA officer’s critique of Administration policy.

If true, this is the most important aspect of the Plame affair.  We need an effective CIA.  Intelligence and covert operations are among the most important tools to fight our 4GW opponents.  Our major institution in this field is the CIA, with its dismal record.

The Administration is pushing for change; the CIA responds by pushing for more influence in setting policy.  The whole program gets bogged down in political infighting over what are, from a historical perspective, minor matters.  Business as usual at our Versailles on the Potomac.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.