Woodward and Insider Trading
Bob Woodward, who as a young man exposed the Watergate burglaries has now become wrapped up in a scandal himself. He did not tell his employers at the Washington Post that he had been leaked to in the Plame affair. It turns out that a high White House official told Woodward that Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, worked for the CIA, in June of 2003. Woodward made a deposition to this effect before Fitzgerald on Monday, having been released from his vow of confidentiality by the source for that purpose, even though he was not given permission to discuss the source publicly. Fitzgerald sought the deposition after the high official him- or herself told the special prosecutor of the conversation.
The source was not Irving Lewis Libby, who has been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in the case, or Karl Rove, who leaked to other reporters. Woodward says he did not disclose the conversation to his employer because he was afraid of compromising the confidentiality of his source.
But it is at least plausible that for a high White House official to tell Woodward that Valerie Plame Wilson was a CIA operative was a crime. It does not matter if Woodward knew she was undercover. It matters whether the leaker knew it, or could reasonably be expected to have inferred it from her employment in the directorate of operations. For Woodward to cover this leak up is no different from a reporter witnessing a burglary and covering that up. (“Burglary”: get it?)
Larry Johnson pointed out a couple of weeks ago at tpmcafe that Woodward has increasingly become lost in cronyism, and has been an apologist for the dirty tricks of the White House Iraq Group, which appears to have deliberately outed Plame Wilson in order to punish her husband, Wilson, for blowing the whistle on the Bush administration’s hyping of Iraq WMD intelligence.
The defense lawyers for Libby immediately claimed that the new information helped their client. In order to grasp this absurdity, you have to understand that for some attorneys, any proposition may be put forward as long as it has not been explicitly rejected by the relevant court. That is, some lawyers would be perfectly happy to argue that water is dry, and has not been ruled wet by any court of law, and that moreover anyone who criticizes them for so alleging is guilty of copyright infringement and very possibly also of sodomy, until those allegations are ruled on in court.
I remember when I translated Kahlil Gibran’s early Arabic works, which had been published in 1905-1915, I had first checked that they were out of copyright (they were). But nevertheless I got a letter from some lawyer representing a member of the Gibran family alleging that these works “might be in copyright.” He knew very well this was untrue. But if the letter could scare me into giving up the project, it would have accomplished its goal. It does not matter to those less principled folks that their assertions are false; they are speaking instrumentally, for the accomplishment of some purpose, not to express the truth. (Likewise with the recent assertions in certain quarters that I don’t know Arabic, which would have made it difficult for me to pull off those translations, much less all the other books I’ve written out of difficult Arabic archival and manuscript sources; look into it and you’ll find some lawyer put them up to saying it. I’d have to find a judge who knew Arabic even to challenge the stupid libel.)
In fact, the rather bizarre world of political discourse in Washington, DC, in which all sorts of untrue and faintly ridiculous allegations are routinely made, grows directly out of the unreal discourse of the less principled trial lawyers. So politicians (mostly lawyers) alleged to us that Iraq was on the verge of having a nuclear bomb, while in fact Iraq was not even on the verge of having one of those old Mickey Mouse watches that glowed in the dark because they were painted with radium.
Libby has been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice among other charges. He lied to the grand jury on more than one occasion. He said that a journalist told him that Plame Wilson worked for the CIA. This allegation was not true, and nothing Woodward said on Wednesday changes its falsity. Fitzgerald did not charge Libby with speaking to Woodward, or with being the first to leak Plame Wilson’s name, or anything else affected by Woodward’s minor revelation.
As for Woodward’s trivialization of the outing of an undercover CIA operative, it is vileness itself. Arthur Silber is eloquent on the ironies of liberals defending the CIA and conservatives dismissing the significance of Plame Wilson’s outing. He cites Steve Weissman’s fine article on CIA turncoat Philip Agee and other outers, including, Norman Mailer (who later wrote a novel, Harlot’s Ghost, about the agency). All of Plame Wilson’s close contacts came under scrutiny by their Third World governments, and for all we know some are no longer with us. (One of Woodward’s most abject lies is that the CIA looked into this matter and was reassured; it did not and it isn’t, and neither should we be.)
I don’t think that the real scandal here is the outing of an undercover operative, however despicable that was. It is the purpose for which she was outed, and the likely consequences. The purpose was petty political revenge. The likely consequence is to make it harder to recruit high-powered people into the agency, so as to improve its ability to take on the hard challenges that the US now faces in the age of asymmetrical warfare.
What Libby, Rove and others did was the equivalent of stock brokers engaging in insider trading. If very many stock brokers did that very often (or if investors became convinced that this was the case), the whole system would collapse. It is an architectonic crime, having to do with the holistic architecture of an entire industry. Likewise, if very many politicians misuse their security clearances to play politics with the lives of covert operatives, it would pulverize the intelligence business. You don’t have to be a fan of all the agency’s activities to want it to capture Bin Laden and Zawahiri before they blow us up. Libby, Rove and others impeded that effort by harming morale and hurting the ability of the agency to assure its own contacts and clients of confidentiality.
PS The original version of this posting was insufficiently careful to distinguish between attorneys of principle and those that lack it. I apologize to the former.