Daily Howler logo
AN EXCELLENT QUESTION! Why have we reacted to this case as we have? We’d call that an excellent question: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, JULY 30, 2005

AN EXCELLENT QUESTION: Some readers rejected the notion that CIA spokesman Bill Harlow made a weak request of Bob Novak (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/29/05). Here was one example, although others argued along different lines:
E-MAIL: I am puzzled by your Pincus/Harlow/Novak post. How do you know what terms Harlow used? The only clue we have is the fact he believed they were the strongest possible. In other words, how can you tell from Pincus’s statement that Harlow did not say more or less exactly what you say he should have said? Of course some might wonder why, if he used a statement like yours, he would not just say so. The answer to that seems obvious. If he did admit to such a statement, any reasonable person would conclude he had just outed Plame. Bottom line: I can not see how the statement “used the strongest terms possible” can be used to know exactly what he said.
How do I know what terms Harlow used? I don’t “know” what terms he used; I only know what he apparently told Pincus. For the record, here again is the passage in which Pincus has him saying that he used the strongest possible terms:
PINCUS (7/27/05): Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.

Harlow said that after Novak's call, he checked Plame's status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.

According to Pincus, Harlow said he made his request in the strongest terms he was permitted to use. But note that, according to this passage, Harlow only gave two warnings in those terms: He “warned Novak...that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission [to Niger].” And he warned Novak “that if he did write about [the mission], her name should not be revealed.” One reader questioned our interpretation of this second request; when Harlow warned Novak that Plame’s name should not be used, he of course meant that she shouldn’t be mentioned at all, this mailer suggested. The mailer makes a reasonable point; it’s possible that Harlow conveyed that fairly clearly to Novak, even if he conveyed it less clearly to Pincus. To our ear, Pincus described a weak request; if Plame were still connected to serious security assets and we were charged with protecting those assets, we think we’d put up more of a fight than is conveyed in the Pincus account. In his October 2003 column, Novak says that his CIA contact “never suggested to me that Wilson's wife or anybody else would be endangered.” To our ear, the Pincus account didn’t seem to contradict or challenge that. But it is of course impossible to know, from the Pincus account, exactly what was said.

As we noted, we discussed this matter yesterday because we were struck by David Corn’s column on the topic. David’s reaction to the Pincus account was quite different from our own; most specifically, he seemed to be struck by the “contradictions” between the Novak and Harlow accounts, and we were amazed by how similar the two accounts seemed to be. “Am I saying this because of my own bias? Perhaps,” David (admirably) said at one point. But then, we all bring “biases” or predispositions into our reactions to such matters. Since many readers have been amazed by some of our reactions to the Plame case, we thought it might help if we tried to set out our own guiding predispositions.

Why have we reacted as we have, some have asked. We’ll call that an excellent question.

First, for our general understanding of the leak case: If we had to guess, we would guess as we did last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/22/05). We would guess that Patrick Fitzgerald has found that U.S. security interests were damaged when Plame’s CIA status was revealed; that he is disturbed by that fact; and that he has found, or suspects, that some administration officials behaved in bad faith when they passed this information around. Left on our own, we have tended to chuckle when we think of Rove (or someone else) getting indicted. But when we have gone on line and seen how fervently some liberals pray for indictment, our hackles have tended to go up a bit (more on this reaction below). We think that most facts of this case remain unclear, and that many liberals and Dems have gotten far ahead of what they know as they pray for a criminal action. We don’t think that’s wise or smart, and we’ve therefore found ourselves inclined to debunk Group Wisdom on this matter—Group Wisdom which may simply be wrong. (We’ve done this daily for the past seven years. No one seems to get upset when we attempt to debunk such Group Wisdom—if the Group Wisdom comes from the right.)

Why are we suspicious of prevailing Group Wisdom? First, this is one of the rare cases in the past seven years where the mainstream press corps, right from the start, more or less took the Dem-liberal side. That is to say, when Joe Wilson’s op-ed appeared in the New York Times, the mainstream press corps quickly adopted its frameworks, and failed to notice some of the problems associated with its reasoning. At the same time, they have tended to underplay some of the problems with Wilson himself, even as they have tended to accept his frameworks in a fairly uncritical fashion. From that day on, the press corps has tended to adopt the Wilson framework, and has tended to overlook weaknesses with his view of this case. In so doing, the corps has tended toward the same lazy, group-think habits it long has used to go after Big Dems. In this case, liberals have tended to applaud the corps’ wisdom—because the corps’ (conventional) wisdom has tilted the liberal way. But we’ve seen many of the same habits we have long assailed in the past—and we think they should be challenged. GroupThink feels good—when it’s tilting your way. But it’s no way to run a smart discourse.

And no, the facts in this case don’t always support the Wilson framework. (In a complex case like this, the facts almost never tilt all one way.) Because our bias is against GroupThink, we tend to be intrigued when information suggests that prevailing Group Assumptions may not be accurate. These matters may not challenge or compromise the basic facts of the case: Whether Plame’s outing compromised real security assets, for example, or whether White House leakers knew her outing was inappropriate. But they do remind us that real events are not fairy tales, and that they should be reviewed accordingly. When do facts tilt against the received Wilson framework? For one small example, we were surprised by this vague paragraph in this week’s Pincus piece:

PINCUS (7/27/05): Using background conversations with at least three journalists and other means, Bush officials attacked Wilson's credibility. They said that his 2002 trip to Niger was a boondoggle arranged by his wife, but CIA officials say that is incorrect. One reason for the confusion about Plame's role is that she had arranged a trip for him to Niger three years earlier on an unrelated matter, CIA officials told The Washington Post.
Strange! In our view, that lone paragraph is so unclear that it probably shouldn’t have been published as written. But it seems to say the following things: 1) CIA officials say that Plame did not arrange Wilson’s 2002 trip. Beyond that: 2) CIA officials say there was “confusion” about this, in part because Plame had arranged a trip for Wilson to Niger three years earlier. But that strikes us as passing strange; we have been told, again and again, that Plame wasn’t in a position to “arrange” such a trip in 2002, but now we seem to be told that she had done something like that three years before. The contradiction may be more apparent than real, but we were struck by the oddness of that passage, given the emphasis that has been placed on Plame’s inability to “authorize” the 2002 trip. For the record, Wilson describes a 1999 trip to Niger in his book, The Politics of Truth. (Page 11: “I returned to Niamey in 1999 not long after Mainassara’s assassination and met with his successor as president, Major Daouda Malam Wanké, at the request of the same civilian prime minister, Ibrahim Mayaki, with whom I had worked so closely during my time at the National Security Council.”) We accept the notion that Plame could not have “authorized” the 2002 trip, and we think the uproar over her role in Wilson’s selection is overblown (though not completely irrelevant). But how did a very smart liberal react to that paragraph from Pincus—a paragraph that was generally ignored? The smart liberal in question is Matt Yglesias. After he quoted that paragraph from Pincus—“this random tidbit jumped out at me,” he said—he offered this reaction:
YGLESIAS (7/27/05): So, yes, the Bush administration is full of ignorant liars. But more to the point, they were trying to get the press to believe that Joe Wilson's trip to Niger was a boondoggle. Note that while the government covered Wilson's expenses, the trip was otherwise uncompensated. The trip, I remind you, was to Niger. Niger. Not Aruba, not Paris, not even Marrakesh. Niger, "one of the poorest countries in the world, a landlocked Sub-Saharan nation, whose economy centers on subsistence crops." Per capita income $900. It's a "mostly hot, dry, dusty" desert.

Absolutely ridiculous...

Strange. In this paragraph in question, Pincus quotes a CIA official saying that the claim about Plame’s role in the trip resulted from “confusion.” Yglesias’ reaction? The paragraph shows that the Bush Admin “is full of ignorant liars.” To us, that seems like the opposite of what is being claimed—if an erroneous statement results from confusion, to that extent, it isn’t a lie—but, to Yglesias, a “lie” came to mind. To our ear, this sounded like the sort of judgment that results from a pounding GroupThink. But then, the “BushLies” framework tends to be very powerful for liberals who assess this case. How powerful? Unless we misunderstand what Yglesias said, even when a misstatement is chalked up to confusion, it is quickly reworked to a lie.

Did Plame’s outing damage American security interests? For ourselves, we have no real way of knowing, but we have no reason to doubt that it did, and we get the impression that Fitzgerald may have reached that judgment. But all around the liberal web, we’ve seen an overpowering GroupThink on this matter—and we doubt that the matter is as much a pleasing fairy tale as some would make it to be. No, we don’t even think that the “boondoggle” claim is necessarily “absolutely ridiculous.” After all, one man’s Niamey is another man’s Marrakesh; we have no way of knowing if a trip like this is good for Wilson’s career or standing, although we’re not inclined to think that the question matters all that much. (We’d prefer that his report was simply judged on its merits.) At any rate, to the extent that any RNC type was actually sincere in making this claim, we would guess he might have meant an ideological “boondoggle,” in which CIA types sent a kindred spirit into the field as part of the agency’s ongoing fight with the White House about Iraq intel matters. We have no way of knowing if any RNC type really was sincere in this claim, but we’re inclined to doubt that the facts of this matter are as simple and sweet as many liberals would like. When we hear “confusion,” we don’t quickly think “lie”—and when such GroupThink-driven logic starts invading the suburbs, we do think it’s worth challenging.

Is this story as simple as we’ve wanted to think? We doubt it—and we have a visceral distaste for the “logic” of the shouting, street-running mob, the mob which is deeply impressed with its certainty. In the past decade, that street-running “logic” has routinely been aimed at Big Major Dems—in 2000, it put George Bush in the White House—but we find it unappealing when it’s aimed at others, and we find it unappealing when it begins to shape our daily discourse. For example, we like Arianna Huffington as well as the next guy—better than most, we’ll flatly guess—but what is happening to liberal discourse when we start thrilling to absurd discourse like this, about the vile Judith Miller?

HUFFINGTON (7/28/05): For starters, of course, we have her still unfolding involvement in the Plame leak. Earlier this month, Howard Kurtz reported that Miller and Libby spoke a few days before Novak outed Plame—and I’m hearing that the Libby/Miller conversation occurred over breakfast in Washington. Did Valerie Plame come up—and, if so, who brought her up? There is no question that Miller was angry at Joe Wilson—and continues to be. A social acquaintance of Miller told me that, once, when she spoke of Wilson, it was with “a passionate and heated disgust that went beyond the political and included an irrelevant bit of deeply personal innuendo about him, her mouth twisting in hatred.”
Good grief! While everyone else pretends to wring hands about the use of single anonymous sources, we now thrill when such lone sources make judgments on matters as absurdly subjective as whether Miller’s mouth “twisted in hatred” when she spoke about Joe Wilson one day! But then, we remember the day (in November 1999) when Arianna was overdoing in the other direction, trashing Candidate Gore on TV for his (non-existent) four-button suits, which he was allegedly wearing “with all four buttons buttoned” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/12/00). “Frankly, what is fascinating is the way he's now dressing makes a lot of people feel disconnected from him,” Arianna revealed. “It's just not the way Americans dress.” We like Arianna more than you do, but that was utterly silly then—and the quote about Miller is silly now. We don’t think it’s good for liberals—or for the country in general—when that kind of phantasmagoric, “four-button” thinking takes over the liberal web.

So yes—we’d be surprised if the Plame story is as simple as it’s being played on the web. And no, we don’t think that it’s a good thing when liberals turn real life into fairy tales. None of this affects the basic questions involved here: Was Plame still connected to security assets? Were those American interests damaged when she was outed? Did White House officials behave inappropriately—even criminally—when they passed this information around? Those are the basic questions involved in this case—and these questions don’t turn on the matter of how strongly Harlow may have warned Novak. Beyond that, real life isn’t a fairy tale, and the facts don’t typically all go one way. It may be that Rove behaved in bad faith—and that Harlow gave a weak warning to Novak. People surrender their rational judgment when they start to think the facts all go one way.

David Corn, a superlative writer and a superlative guy, asked if he was making certain judgments “because of [his] bias.” Because we all bring biases and preconceptions into our judgments, we’ll try to ID our own bias here. Here goes: We don’t like GroupThink, mob rule, lynch mobs or hoohah, and we think we’ve seen these impulses—the building blocks of propaganda—spreading around the liberal web this past month. At times of high partisan feeling, even the smartest folks of all can read “confusion” and turn it to “lie.” At present, we think many liberals are wishing too hard—and we think it’s a dangerous impulse.

One last point, then, about our own preconceptions and visceral reactions. As we noted, we tend to find ourselves rooting for an indictment of Rove—until we see how hard some others are rooting. To us, what does that fervor suggest? We think we hear many liberals saying: “We can’t beat them, so let’s try to arrest them.” In short, where some hear fire, we hear defeatism; we see people who have refused to fight hard for liberal interests, who now plug in a desire for arrests. Of course, that involves another of our preconceptions: For the past several years, we have seen a Hamlet situation in our liberal establishment, as a wide range of major liberals refuse to discuss the way their party actually lost control of the White House. Preserving their privileged places in the court, they avert their gaze from the actual way the current reigning king took power. Instead of fighting the fight on all fronts, they rant and rail about Rove today. Frankly, we’d prefer that they tried a bit harder to develop a winning message for Dems, and we wish they’d finally stop their dissembling and discuss the actual way George Bush found his way to the White House. As Frost said:

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
As we have long said, we think many career liberals have been “withholding,” as a professional courtesy to their cohort, the press corps. We’re not impressed by their loud yelling now—and we don’t think it’s wise when they adopt that “four-button” thought process, or see “lie” where the page says “confusion.”

Needless to say, there’s a final point in all this. If American assets were compromised in bad faith, we’re OK with prosecution (although we’d rather beat the GOP straight up). But the simple-minded, fairy-tale aspects of this story have largely stemmed from the way the mainstream press (and the liberal web) have adopted Joe Wilson’s frameworks. By all accounts, Wilson served his country brilliantly in Iraq, and, we presume, in other postings. He was perfectly qualified for his mission to Niger, and we assume that his report was fully professional. Except for standard-issue, RNC clowning about the way he spent his time in Niger “drinking sweet tea,” no one has ever said different. But starting around May 2003 (two months before he went public in his Times op-ed piece), Wilson has been very shaky in many of his public (and off-the-record) statements (we haven’t even discussed his shakiest episodes). He opens his book with a quote from Dante: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Wilson did some excellent writing about Iraq before the war began. But sometimes, air-conditioned regions are filled with those who began to overstate a tad because they saw a moral crisis so vividly. Understanding this fact of human nature, wise people will try to avoid turning public figures into fairy-tale heroes. By all accounts, Wilson served his country brilliantly in Iraq, but intelligent people will “trust but verify.” After all, Gore never wore any four-button suits, although it sounded real good at the time. Everyone was having good fun talking about Gore’s troubling buttons.

By the way, let’s note the following: We’ve said above, again and again, that we are inclined to believe the following: That Plame was tied to real US assets; that her outing compromised those assets; and that this outing may have been done in bad faith. Don’t worry, though! The e-mails will come rolling in, asking why we say that Karl Rove is innocent. At times of “moral crisis” or partisan furor, we’re all inclined to hear things one way. It was happening in November1999, and it seems to us that it’s happening now. As the mob starts shouting and running, we’ll speak for crafty intelligence.

BUTTON IT: To see Chris Matthews clown about those buttons, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/14/02 and 3/10/03. By the way: Have you ever seen a fiery career liberal discuss the eight-year reign of nonsense produced by this utterly fake, bizarre man? “Something we were withholding made us weak”—for example, discussion of Matthews. When these silent beings strut about Rove, we find them quite unimpressive.