American Culture

The Plame Affair: a quartet of betrayals

Scholars & Rogues presents another guest post from Russ Wellen, an editor at Freezerbox.


Shed no tears for Valerie Plame. It’s easy to tell by the radiant smile on her face when she’s out in public that, despite the designation “fair game” that Karl Rove slapped on her in a conversation with Chris Matthews, she’s not a bitter woman. Besides, since she was once an employee of the CIA with its heinous history, the amount of sympathy she’s got coming to her is pretty paltry.

Nevertheless, she’s been betrayed yet again. On July 19, the lawsuit Valerie Plame had filed against Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby and Richard Armitage for both violating her privacy and taking revenge on her husband (for leaving their yellowcake out in the rain) was dismissed.

Federal Judge John Bates claimed his hands were tied by “special factors” — statutes enacted by Congress to cover alleged harm to CIA operatives and other federal employees. A Bush appointee, he’s the same judge who, according to Truthout, “dismissed a lawsuit filed by the federal government … [seeking] access to Cheney’s energy task force documents.”

But, along with the revelation of her identity as an undercover CIA agent, this wasn’t the only other occasion that Ms. Plame suffered betrayal at the hands of the nation. Sandwiched in between were two other instances.

The first was the response of the media. It’s true that Plamegate has been a font of regurgitation for talking heads to ruminate on. But network and cable TV have failed to capitalize on its obvious potential as a human interest story.

Actually, failing to grant Plamegate wider exposure is less a betrayal of Ms. Plame than of the public. We’ve been cheated out of an opportunity to understand the extent of the injustice to which the administration subjected not only her, but the nation as a whole.

Why did the networks fail to take advantage of Plamegate? After all, they’re always on the lookout for sensational news stories, especially those featuring blondes. Plamegate not only boasts a fabulous blonde, but the other characters seem drawn straight from central casting, while the narrative could have been lifted from a film script.

The second betrayal was the response of the hard right. What compelled it to come to the defense of an act of — call a spade a spade — treason? As it never stops reminding Democrats and liberals, its stock in trade is security. You’d think it wouldn’t want to touch a breach in our national defense with a ten-foot pole.

Regarding the networks’ lack of enthusiasm for Plamegate, you’ll see how surprising that was, once the ingredients are spread before you. As for the characters, the protagonist not only worked for the CIA, but was a woman agent. Furthermore, she was not only a woman, but a knockout. Not only was she beautiful, but Grace Kelly-elegant.

As for the story, not only wasn’t the protagonist’s identity revealed by an enemy, but by our very own executive branch. Nor, not only did the executive branch double-cross her, but it did so even though she had been working in a field dear to its heart — investigating the presence of nuclear weapons in Iraq (as well as Iran).

Not only was Ms. Plame attempting to unearth evidence of WMDs in Iraq, but her husband was as well, while on a mission to Niger. Not only that, but, with his debonair and commanding ways, he came off like a leading man. Not only was he dashing, but, as deputy chief of mission to the US Embassy in Iraq prior to the Gulf War, he appeared in public with a noose around his neck and dared Saddam Hussein to execute him.

Not only did Joseph Wilson save thousands of Americans and other foreigners on that occasion by helping them to evacuate before the war, but this time he was attempting to save all of us from a war with a rationale that paled in comparison to the earlier.

Not only did he try to keep us out of Iraq, but he gallantly came to his beleaguered wife’s defense at every turn. Not only did he display nobility toward his wife, he called for Karl Rove, as punishment for his part in the affair, to be frog-marched out of the White House.

As if that weren’t enough to convince the networks they had a hot story on their hands, Plamegate boasted the perfect villain in the nefarious Robert Novak. (Okay, his character is broadly drawn, but whose fault is that?) Not to mention that in Judith Miller, who seemed to serve two masters — The New York Times and the administration — they had the perfect double agent.

Why then would CNN Entertainment News, for one, pass on this once-in-a-lifetime story? Let’s start with Judith Miller.

When she agreed to be imprisoned, it was darned near impossible to divine her motives. Was she standing up for the First Amendment and protecting a source? Or was she just trying to rehabilitate her journalism career, which lay in tatters after she “stovepiped” (channeled without filtering) the administration’s faulty case for war straight to the pages of the Times?

She might have been protecting a source all right — herself. As Margaret Kimberly of The Chicago Defender helpfully explained, “Judith Miller may have been … the one who gave up Valerie Plame [to the White House].”

Say what? This proved confusing to even commentators (this one, anyway), never mind a public already ill-suited to follow the twists and turns of a spy story. Worse, since the end of the Cold War, and the shift in intelligence away from human “assets” to technology and surveillance, spy stories have become archaic.

Another possible reason the networks refused to grant the Plame Affair major air time was that, despite the high-class cheesecake of Ms. Plame, it suffered from a distinct lack of illicit sex. As with President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, or Gary Condit and Chandra Levy, this is the charge a story needs to blast its way out of the political ghetto. Still, by withholding the exposure routinely granted run-of-the-mill MWW (Missing White Women) stories, programmers demonstrated a distinct inability to think outside the box.

Returning to the other question — why the hard right would defend those who endangered the life of a CIA agent — it begins and ends, of course, with Vice President Cheney. Whether aware the leak originated in his office or acting on that assumption, the right jumped to his defense.

To briefly digress, Cheney’s personal clipping, marked with vengeful notations, of Joseph Wilson’s infamous New York Times editorial was prominently displayed on Truthout. Why this smokingest of guns didn’t garner more attention is yet another mystery. In fact, it bridged the questions of why Plamegate failed to garner broader coverage and why the hard right defended the leak.

Meanwhile, another reason for the right’s defense of the outing of a CIA agent might include its long-time bias against the CIA as a liberal institution. (Don’t ask me — it’s about as unlikely as their casting Hillary Clinton in the role of standard bearer for liberalism.) This was supplied with fresh justification by the CIA’s resistance to and resentment of Cheney’s attempts to arm-twist it into cramming square facts into a round hole.

A curious role reversal resulted. Liberals were left to defend a CIA agent, a force arguably responsible for the deaths of millions on foreign shores since its creation. More accurately, liberals used Ms. Plame to shame the right for acting at odds with national security.

Even lamer than labeling the CIA liberal was the charge that Joseph Wilson’s trip to Niger was a perk that Ms. Plame scored for her husband. As the old joke goes: “First prize, one week in Niger. Second prize, two weeks in Niger.”

Sorrier still was conservatives claiming she’d already been outed twice. First, supposedly, to Russia in the 1990s and then, according to Bill Gertz in The Washington Times, “a more recent inadvertent disclosure resulted in references to Mrs. Plame in confidential documents sent by the CIA to the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana.” As if, true or not, either instance was common knowledge in Washington.

But how — aside from assuming Cheney et al. would protect them — did those on the right think they could get away with attacking a CIA agent even after one of their own had outed her? After all, even if ultimately validated, they were taking on a powerful taboo.

No doubt, however, they were emboldened by the successful attacks they’d launched against war heroes John McCain, Max Cleland and John Kerry. But when Ms. Plame’s identity was revealed, the WMD work she and others were conducting under the guise of the fictitious firm Brewster Jennings came to a grinding halt.

Worse, it’s been speculated that those she worked with may have been endangered. One has only to recall the trial and sentencing of Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel. It’s alleged that it resulted in the execution of key CIA assets in the Eastern Bloc.

In an aside, this is where liberals and progressives dropped the ball. In the spirit of George Lakoff’s “framing” or current Democratic favorite Drew Westen’s “marketplace of emotions,” they ought never refer to Ms. Plame’s identity as “outed,” like a sexual orientation, or “leaked,” like an advance copy of the latest Harry Potter.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, Ms. Plame, like the US by the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, who sold secrets to the KGB for over 20 years, was betrayed. Furthermore, the perpetrators — Libby, Rove and Cheney, if not Armitage, too — committed treason.

Let’s now draw a final conclusion about why the networks failed to showcase Plamegate despite its sizzle. In the meantime, Ms. Plame has turned her story into a book, Fair Game, set for a fall release (with the attendant 60 Minutes interview). She should dedicate it to Karl Rove, for supplying the boffo title — has there ever been fairer game than Valerie Plame?

In addition, the book is being developed into a film by Warner Brothers. On the other hand, the lack of a TV movie is telling. But Plamegate may have actually passed the programmers’ smell test — in other words, it stank to high heaven. They may have wanted to run with it, but were warned off by network executives.

When the administration was at its full power, big media companies tried to stay in its good graces to forestall the possibility of the FCC preventing them from buying up various media in the same market. Heaven forbid anyone should cramp their monopolizing ways. It was just a few short years ago that the networks shied away from sanctioning stories that portrayed the administration in an unflattering light.

But when all is said and done, if the programmers projected it would draw high ratings –- to which Keith Olbermann attributes the leeway he’s been given for the past few years — they would have spotlighted the case. Apparently, Plamegate fell short in its gossip quotient, an arcane equation one imagines a marketing company uses focus groups to calculate.

The sad truth is that the networks were probably correct in their assessment of the American people. In these taxing times the bulk of the public seems to prefer relaxing with lighter fare like Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton and MWWs, rather than facing hard news or committing to a complicated spy story, no matter how compelling the characters.

Finally, let’s sum up why the hard right went after, with both bared teeth and talons, the Plame Affair. When it comes to circling the wagons around Cheney, it would have done so even if armed with only picks and axes.

But we also need to recall those fateful aluminum tubes Iraq had been importing ostensibly for nuclear use. As David Corn wrote in “What Valerie Plame Really Did at the CIA“:

The undercover work being done by Plame and her CIA colleagues in the Directorate of Central Intelligence (DCI) Nonproliferation Center strongly contradict[ed] those previously-reported beliefs that these aluminum tubes could be used in a centrifuge for nuclear enrichment.

Then, when her husband augmented her work with his Times editorial, a synergy was created. The Wilsons’ initiatives became more than the sum of their parts — thus increasing the administration and hard right’s anger exponentially.

Why, the Wilsons were a veritable tag team of traitors. The had to be stopped by any means necessary — even treason.

Let’s leave it to the inimitable Juan Cole to outline the aftershocks. “If you thought that the vice president might casually betray your identity if he thought it politically convenient to do so,” he wrote on Informed Comment, “you’d be crazy to put yourself” in the position of a covert operative.

“So the judge threw out the lawsuit,” he continues. “But we will all be paying the damages.” Not usually given to damning pronouncements, Cole nevertheless intones: “the United States will be punished for what Cheney Inc. did to Plame Wilson.”

10 replies »

  1. I cannot tell you, with proper emphasis, what a clear-eyed terrific article this piece is. The damnation of the MSM is accurate and placed precisely. The silence of the American people breaks my heart. Torches and pitchforks, please.

  2. Russ,

    I don’t think you give the public enough credit. Look at the cries of outrage when Scooter got his “get out of jail free” card–even people who had heretofore expressed no interest in or understanding of the case were furious that Bush commuted the sentence of a man convicted for perjury and obstructing justice, simply because he could. We were paying attention, no matter what was on the TV screen.

    Now with that said, I do agree and find it fascinating how the MSM ducked and weaved like Ali to avoid taking on the Plame story. I think it was a simple case of social jealousy mixed with the desire to placate their corporate masters. You said it yourself–Valerie Wilson is beautiful, elegant, smart, and capable, while her husband is a dashing hero right out of the Bond playbook. Compare them to a shriveled hag like Judy Miller or a soft-bellied yutz like Scooter Libby.
    Or most of the bloviating pundits you see on the Sunday news shows. Simple envy.

    The CIA under the Bush/Cheney (and formerly Rumsfeld) regime is a crippled, tamed thing. It’s amazing to think of them as the organization that performed decades of shady shit, because the axis of evil in the White House has emasculated them so thoroughly. Bush has always hated the CIA, because it’s the organization his father made his bones in. Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted to militarize intelligence-gathering operations and put all the scut work in the Pentagon, and they were furious that the CIA wouldn’t play ball. Why do you think all those “secret documents” came out now, in an era of of unparalleled government secrecy?

    Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out there is a film in development about the Plame scandal–except with Judy Miller as the central figure, being played by none other than Kate Beckinsale:

    I couldn’t make that up if you paid me.

  3. The majority public may not so much have a preference for entertainment as an inclination toward indifference. After all, whether the hard right or radical left drives the professional political agenda, the concerns of the common man have largely ignored. In turn, the public ignores Washington until something directly affects them. It is much the same apathy that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  4. This really will go down as one of the most baffling cases in US history, I suspect. Hypocrisy as far as the eye can see – as you say, for instance, why are our hard-ass national security friends on the right not marching on the White House with torches and pitchforks over such a treasonous breach? And Judy Miller? The oddest thing about that was how the press insisted on treating her as a reporter instead of what she was – Karl Rove’s typist.

    The good news is that surely it’s not over. Joe Wilson didn’t sound like a man with a lot of quit in him when I saw him at the CWA a few months back, and if we can get a Dem supermajority maybe we can do some serious investigating….

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Ken, Dr. Denny and OpEdna.

    Re No. 4:
    “Shriveled hag” and “soft-bellied yutz” — don’t pull any punches, Martin. But maybe you’re right. Sometimes I do underestimate the public.

    Thanks for informing me of the other Plamegate movie. Shrewd career move, Kate.

    A commenter on Shechter’s blog, linked to polls about it here:

    Another commenter on Schechter’s blog said: “Lily Tomlin would have been more appropriate for the Judith role.”

    Re No. 5:
    “the concerns of the common man have largely ignored. In turn, the public ignores Washington until something directly affects them.”

    Yeah, Three Bells, turnabout is fair play.

    Re No. 7:
    When Libby was pardoned, Sam, Wilson gave us one of those did-he-just-say-what-I-thought-he-did? moments when he called the administration “corrupt to the core.”

  6. Pingback:
  7. Valerie Plame is not a good person even if she and her
    husband did oppose the Bush administration.

    Valerie Plame has committed a few acts of wrongdoing
    herself for which she should investigated.
    Her 1996 involvement in domestic spying along with CIA
    coworkers Eunjoo Kensinger, Cheri Leberknight, Rebecca
    Wolfson and FBI agent Mike Fabregas is something which
    deserves serious investigation. But to date the FBI and CIA
    have done everything possible to bury any such action.

    Valerie Plame Wilson should be prosecuted just as much as
    George Bush and Dick Cheney should.