Thursday, October 13, 2005

The wrath of the blogosphere: Attacking Richard Cohen's take on The Plame Game

Much is being made in the blogosphere, and especially the liberal blogosphere, of Richard Cohen's column in today's Post. Here's the gist of his piece:

The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals. As it is, all he has done so far is send Judith Miller of the New York Times to jail and repeatedly haul this or that administration high official before a grand jury, investigating a crime that probably wasn't one in the first place but that now, as is often the case, might have metastasized into some sort of coverup -- but, again, of nothing much. Go home, Pat.

No, Mr. Fitzgerald, don't. We don't know what happened, but the truth must come out. Whether or not you indict anyone is less important, I think, than that. Did anyone intentionally leak Valerie Plame's identity to the press? If so, who? We need to know.

I like Richard Cohen a great deal, and I generally agree that the press must be protected from intimidation and permitted to protect its own anonymous sources. But if a crime was committed, then a crime was committed. Period.

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Around the (unhappy) blogosphere:

The Left Coaster: Cohen's column "reveals a depth of ignorance so profound, about so many aspects of American political life, that it is difficult to imagine why the Washington Post believes he is qualified to comment about anything that requires logical thought or knowledge about the American legal system, American history, beltway politics, or the Valerie Plame affair." Well, I wouldn't go that far -- again, I like his work -- but this column is indeed pretty bad.

Pandagon: "Can anyone make some sense of this? Prosecuting the people who tried to intimidate those who were brave enough to speak up about how we were getting into Iraq is somehow (surely in some pristine tour de force display of impeccable logic) going to intimidate future truth tellers from speaking up?"

The News Blog: "Judy Miller's own colleagues don't believe this has to do with the press. Nor do any of the reporters who testified before the grand jury, including Bob Novak. This is about the security of the United States and those who help provide it. There is NOTHING trivial about a conspiracy based in the White House, especially one to expose a CIA officer who worked undercover."

Eschaton calls Cohen a "wanker".

Matthew Gross: "It goes without saying that Cohen has no way of knowing what the 'intent' of anyone was in the matter; but it is also worth saying that intent has nothing to do with it, and lack of intent does not absolve a person of a crime."

The Next Hurrah: "But if, as Joe Wilson claims (and I believe) this leak happened to shut people up, then how does sending Fitz away help the cause of press freedom? Cohen is willing to trade away legal protections for physical safety in the name of legal protections for people who leak for political sport. What Cohen is really defending is the system of leaking in DC."

AMERICAblog: "I used to love this guy. He was one of the best op ed writers in the country. Now, I don't know what he is." And: "No one would write such a thing unless they truly had no idea what it means to work with classified information or the intelligence community or in the entire field of foreign affairs. ANYONE who has dealt with highly classified information and CIA agents, and I have from my time on the Hill and during a summer job at State, is acutely aware that outing the identity of an undercover CIA agent -- let alone one who works on weapons of mass destruction issues in the Middle East -- is an extremely dangerous venture."

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I hardly think it's in any way helpful to call Cohen a "wanker" or any other such childish epithet. Cohen's been wrong before, and he's wrong on this one -- to the extent that a columnist with opinions can even be "wrong" in any precise sense -- so let's just say that I disagree with him on this one even as I continue to believe that he's a worthwhile read and that much of his work is extremely good. The problem is that the blogosphere lends itself to name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and knee-jerk negativity, often at the expense of reasoned analysis and disinterested criticism. (I'm guilty of that myself from time to time, I know.)

Which is why I think Kevin Drum at Political Animal, one of the truly best bloggers out there, has it right both in terms of style and substance:

I'm sure he's correct on the assassination front, but my guess is that outing Plame might very well have been deliberate, a way of sending a very strong message that this administration was not to be fucked with. I don't know this for sure, of course, and neither does Cohen, because Fitzgerald has kept a very tight seal on his investigation so far. But that's exactly why Fitzgerald should finish his investigation and let us know his conclusions...

I think Cohen is fundamentally wrong to treat the outing of a covert agent in the same way that he treats the nonstop revelation of minor secrets that practically defines official Washington. Outing an agent represents a far more serious kind of breach, and deliberate or not, it's exactly the kind of thing that anyone with a security clearance should treat as a flashing red line. It just isn't something you risk talking about, especially for so trivial and malicious a reason as the leakers apparently had.

That said, though, I'm on his side when it comes to charges. If Fitzgerald has evidence that White House officials leaked Plame's name as part of their PR counteroffensive against Joe Wilson, then he should bring relevant charges — including perjury and conspiracy charges if those are applicable. But if he can't make the case — either because he can't prove the leak or because he can't prove that Plame was truly covert — then he should go home. Like Cohen, I really don't want to see him hand down indictments solely for tangential perjury or conspiracy charges or some other consolation prize. I'd enjoy seeing Karl Rove frog marched out of the White House as much as anyone, but not at that price.

UPDATE: Well, this is going to go down in history as one of my most unpopular posts ever. All I can say is: Let's wait and see what Fitzgerald comes up with. If he hands down serious charges, great. If they're fundamentally trivial, like the stuff that Ken Starr brought against Bill Clinton, not so great. But we won't know until he finishes up.

I can see how Kevin's post would be unpopular, especially among those out for blood, but popularity isn't the measure of right and wrong, good and bad. It's an excellent post, and it pretty much sums up my own thoughts on the matter. We may disagree with Cohen, and his column today may not exactly be a highlight of his career, but let's not overdo it.

Take a deep breath, then blog.

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