Joshua Zeitz: The Plame Game

Roundup: Historians' Take

On one point John Steele Gordon, in his post yesterday about the Valerie Plame affair, and I are in complete agreement. As Mr. Gordon wryly notes, whatever the outcome of the special grand jury investigating Plamegate, the “Washington punditocracy is throwing out predictions by the ton based on little more than tea-leaf reading.” Well said. I’ve actually stopped following the inside-game coverage. It seems pointless to engage in baseless speculation. Within ten days the grand jury will either indict someone or close up shop. We’ll all find out more at that date. In the meantime, I can handle the suspense.

But I part ways with Mr. Gordon in his ultimate assessment of the underlying scandal. He writes, “This is not a hands-in-the-cookie-jar scandal like Teapot Dome, which sent an attorney general to jail. It is not a serious breach-of-national-security scandal like the Pumpkin Papers, which sent Alger Hiss to jail. It is not an old fashioned corruption scandal like the vicuna coat affair that cost Eisenhower’s chief of staff his job. It is not a hanky-panky-in-high-places scandal like Monicagate, which got a President impeached. Instead, it has been basically a scandal about politics as usual.”

First, a note about history. Alger Hiss was not jailed for breaching national security. He was convicted of perjury for denying (under oath) that he had handed government documents over to Whittaker Chambers, and for denying (again, under oath) that he had had any contact with Chambers after 1937. Whether he shared classified documents with Soviet agents remains a hotly contested subject on which reasonable people can disagree. Furthermore, Bill Clinton was not impeached for hanky-panky. He was impeached for allegedly committing and suborning perjury.

History aside, how does Plamegate not represent a “serious breach of national security?”

If someone within the White House leaked the name of an undercover agent–and this, mind you, in the midst of a perpetual war on terror that the Bush White House has invoked time and again to widen executive authority–then we are indeed facing a grave situation. Either we take national security seriously or we don’t. Either it’s illegal to out a covert operative or it’s not. I fail to see the gray area here.

I agree with Mr. Gordon that Plamegate represents a sordid case of “politics as usual.” But whereas Mr. Gordon sees the Bush administration as the wronged party–in other words, he argues that the Democrats have cynically criminalized mundane political actions for strategic gain–I’d argue, instead, that the scandal has revealed the dangers of unchecked executive power. Just as in the Nixon administration, which routinely used federal agencies like the FBI and IRS to quell constitutionally protected dissent, high-ranking officials in the Bush administration may have violated federal law and compromised the safety of covert operatives to discredit a political opponent.

This isn’t a sin specific to the Republican party; indeed, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations also misused presidential powers to play hardball against their political opponents. It’s more likely a problem of the postwar imperial Presidency. Still, as since 1968 Republicans have controlled the Presidency more often than not, Republicans are by implication more culpable. ...
Read entire article at American Heritage Blog

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Vernon Clayson - 10/29/2005

So far, no one has been named as actually outing a CIA agent, Libby was indicted for lying, nothing more despite the fancier words, perjury, etc. There seems to be some that want us mopes out in the public to believe it was wrong for high officials, including the vice-president, to discuss this woman among themselves. It wasn't wrong, Cheney could talk to Libby, Libby to Rove, Rove to others in the administration, they all have the necessary clearances to discuss, basically, anything and anyone in government service among themselves. The problem is that Libby allegedly dropped the name to media figures not in the loop. No one bothers, yet, to show proof of Plames covert status, from all appearances she has spent the major part of her job ensconced in a, no doubt fancy, office safely away from undercover spying assignments. Exposing a paper shuffler is hardly the same as exposing a person deep undercover in
Beirut, does anyone really believe an assassin will try to find her at some expensive eatery or country club and smoke her? She promoted herself into notoriety by promoting her husband to a position that he used to bring attention to himself.