Topic: Government & Politics

No Winners in the Plame Matter

The Ethics Scoreboard continues to search for a good and original term to describe those events that have so much intersecting unethical conduct by so many participants that it is difficult, if not impossible, to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. Ethics car wreck? Ethics gazpacho? We’re still on the hunt, obviously.

But we need to find one fast, because these situations seem to be proliferating, especially in Washington DC. The latest one is the oh-so-strange Sandy Berger incident, which, frankly, is bizarre to the point where the Scoreboard can’t yet persuade itself to attempt to analyze it. Preliminary indications are that we have a former National Security advisor, Berger, who intentionally lifted classified material (astounding and unethical) from under the noses of National Archive staff who were asleep at the switch (incompetent, dangerous, and unethical) allegedly stuffing some of them in his sock (funny and unethical); a former President who says it’s all a big joke (not unethical, but predictable) and that he knew about it for months, apparently without telling the person most likely to be affected by the story, John Kerry, who claims he didn’t know about it (too confusing to figure out, but either somebody’s lying or somebody hid the ball.) Meanwhile, the whole story was leaked, possibly by a Bush official, and leaks are almost always unethical one way or the other. Yeeesh, as Ed Norton used to say on “The Honeymooners.”

The current prize for Whatever It’s Called, however, must go to the Valerie Plame matter as it has played out to date.

Let us recall how the whole mess started:

President Bush inadvertently lit the fuse in his 2003 State of the Union speech before invading Iraq, when he said. “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Joseph Wilson, former U.S. ambassador to Gabon, was sent to Niger to check out reports that Iraq had sought to buy yellowcake, which is milled uranium oxide refined to make nuclear-weapons material. After the U.S. invasion, Mr. Wilson wrote a newspaper opinion piece asserting that the intelligence on Iraq and yellowcake had been “twisted” to exaggerate the Iraq threat. He also said that the President had, in effect, lied. Eight days after his piece was published, Columnist Robert Novak wrote a piece naming Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as the one who had recommended Wilson for the job. The problem: Plame was a CIA agent, and Novak’s source effectively blew her cover. Wilson and the Democrats claimed that the source had revealed his wife’s name to punish Wilson for his report. He also denied that his wife put his name forward for the investigation assignment. An investigation was launched, because it violates Federal law to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert intelligence officer with the intention of damaging national security, and it’s a felony for any U.S. official with a security clearance to disclose an intelligence officer’s identity to anyone not authorized to receive such information.

Meanwhile, Wilson had a ball. Victim, protective husband, brave truth-teller, he reveled in a new role as the darling of war opponents and Bush-detesters. He was profiled in Vanity Fair. He even rushed a quickie book to press, full of dark theories about the evil that lurked in the hearts of the current administration. The press, meanwhile, turned the “yellowcake in the State of the Union” into front page stuff for weeks.

Got it?

Then a Senate Intelligence Committee report comes out and reveals that a) Plame did recommend her husband for the yellowcake investigation b) Wilson’s Times piece greatly over-stated the case that the “yellowcake” incident was a fabrication, and in fact the best evidence indicates that Bush’s original statement was correct, if somewhat overly emphatic. Plame, meanwhile, may not have been undercover after all. So here is the ethics score on the Plame story as it now standsÂ…and it isn’t pretty:

  • Joe Wilson “Valerie had nothing to do with the matter,” Wilson said in his book, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir. “She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip.” We now know that was a lie. We also know that Wilson provided misleading information to the Washington Post last June, during the media feeding frenzy. He said then that he concluded the Niger intelligence was based on a document that had clearly been forged because ‘the dates were wrong and the names were wrong.’ But the Committee report concludes that Wilson had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports. Wilson is clearly a partisan and an opportunist, who decided to exploit the media’s eagerness to dissect the justification for war while simultaneously enhancing his own celebrity. His credibility at this point should be measured in negative numbers.

  • Valerie Plame She had no business recommending her husband for an assignment: to do so is a violation of government ethics rules against nepotism and conflicts of interest in spirit if not in letter. And she stood back and said nothing while her husband was lying in print and on TV. Wrong.

  • Robert Novak He made a mess messier. He shouldn’t have printed Plame’s name, and he should have revealed his source once he did. Now US taxpayers are shelling out millions for a likely futile investigation.

  • The CIA It shouldn’t have let he line about yellowcake go into Bush’s address; even now, there are questions about its accuracy. This was inept, not that it ranks among the top, oh, say 1000 inept things the CIA has done over the past five years.

  • President Bush He told us he was going to demand the highest levels of ethical performance from his administration. He should have called his staff together and demanded the name and resignation of Novak’s leaker. One disobeys a direct order from POTUS at great personal risk. The fact that Bush has not done this indicates that his earlier pledge was made more for show than out of conviction.

  • The leaker Whether his improper revelations about Plame were inadvertent (which seems likely) or intentionally vindictive, as Wilson claims, they were illegal and wrong. He (or she) should come forward and take whatever punishment comes.

  • The media It has made inadequate efforts to correct the strong impression it left in the minds of many that “Bush lied” about the Niger connection and that Joe Wilson and his wife were just victims of the Bush hit squad. Stories that were trumpeted on page one for weeks have been quietly disavowed on page 10. When are the gurus of “journalistic ethics,” a true oxymoron, going to set out some standards for correcting press-created misimpressions?

  • Democratic, liberal, progressive, and Bush-bashing websites Okay, you played this story to the hilt, and it turns out that it has been driven by an unreliable, self-aggrandizing glory-hound with a political agenda, not a “truth-telling moderate.” The honorable and honest thing for you to do is to admit it, and apologize for the venom you launched after swallowing Wilson’s account hook, line and sinker. It is a test, in fact, of whether you are interested in the truth, or simply in pushing a political agenda by any means available.

Does any one see any winners here?

Meanwhile, the search for the perfect description continues. Maybe we should call these ethics disasters “Plames.”

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