When Valerie Plame’s status as a CIA operative was revealed in 2003, Bush administration critics were adamant that a serious crime had been committed, that American national security interests had been put into jeopardy, and that the exposure warranted nothing less than the prosecution of a wide array of Bush administration officials.
“The Wilson smear was a thuggish act,” intoned David Corn, then Washington correspondent of The Nation. “Bush and his crew abused and misused intelligence to make their case for war. Now there is evidence Bushies used classified information and put the nation's counter-proliferation efforts at risk merely to settle a score.”
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently referred to the affair as a “one of the most egregious abuses of power in history.” In 2008, Democratic congressmen Robert Wexler and Dennis Kucinich introduced 35 articles of impeachment against President Bush, one of which alleged his “Misuse and Exposure of Classified Information and Obstruction of Justice in the Matter of Valerie Plame Wilson.”
This high dudgeon was memorable at the time for its righteous pretensions to principle.
Fast-forward eight years to the disclosure of the identity of another CIA officer, this time an actual clandestine agent in the field, not an analyst sitting behind a desk in Langley. Yet, these erstwhile advocates of protecting the identities of CIA employees have gone missing.
On January 27, Raymond Davis, an American citizen, was charged with the murder of two men in Lahore, Pakistan. Davis claims that the men had tried to rob him while he was driving through a dangerous neighborhood. After fleeing the scene, he was apprehended by Pakistani police.
Washington protested his imprisonment, initially claiming that Davis was an “administrative and technical” staffer working at the embassy in Islamabad, and thus entitled to enjoy diplomatic immunity. President Obama himself publicly pled that the Pakistani government release him and, according to the New York Times, both CIA director Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen called their Pakistani counterparts to reiterate the president’s message. But a Pakistani judge has just ruled that Davis is not entitled to diplomatic immunity.
While Davis’s official cover might have seemed obviously bogus to many (he was, after all, traveling with a Glock handgun, a pocket telescope, and GPS equipment), it should come as no surprise that the United States government would want to keep his real identity a secret. And the State Department did just that, requesting that media outlets not publish details about his CIA affiliations.
Pakistan, after all, is one of the most anti-American countries in the world, a place where conspiracy theories about supposed American perfidy are widespread, particularly those regarding the activities of security contractors and the CIA. In 2009, for instance, a prominent Pakistan newspaper alleged that an American correspondent for the Wall Street Journal was in the employ of the CIA, Blackwater, and the Mossad. The situation has become so bad that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton castigated the Pakistani government and media in a speech last month, stating that “shocking, unjustified anti-Americanism will not resolve” the many problems Pakistan faces.
The State Department quietly requested that media outlets not report on Davis’s CIA connection, a request that was duly ignored by The Guardian, whose reporting of this information on February 20 resulted in mass street protests calling for Davis’s execution. A day later, after State was assured that Davis had been transferred to the “safest possible location,” it reluctantly lifted its request on American news organizations from reporting about his work for the agency, an allowance rendered irrelevant by dint of the fact that the ties had already been reported.
On February 21, in an article revealing Davis’s employment, the New York Times admitted that it had heeded the government’s request. For that decision it incurred the wrath of Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, one of the most active floggers of the Plame/Wilson “scandal,” who labeled the Times “an active enabler of government propaganda.”
In 2005, Greenwald wrote that “In disclosing to reporters the classified information of Plame's CIA employment, what [former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney Scooter] Libby did was wrong and almost certainly illegal.” Yet Greenwald has lauded Bradley Manning, the private alleged to have leaked thousands of classified government documents to WikiLeaks, as a hero, and chides any American news organization that even hesitate to reveal Davis’s identity.
What’s also telling is the silence from the legions of people in the media, blogosphere, and the halls of Congress, who clamored for the heads of Bush administration officials whom they accused of leaking Valerie Plame’s identity but have had absolutely nothing to say about the truly perilous situation in which Raymond Davis now finds himself. The Pakistani justice system is hardly an exemplar of responsible jurisprudence, and it’s entirely possible that a court may unjustly punish Davis as a concession to the anti-American mob. But because Davis was working in pursuit of foreign policy objectives unpopular with the left, and not undermining them, liberals have decided to ignore his plight.
The revelation of Davis’s CIA ties, made while he’s sitting in a Pakistani prison, has put him in far more serious danger than anything ever experienced by Valerie Plame, who’s “outing” led to a glamorous photo-spread in Vanity Fair, a book deal, and a movie starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Plame’s exposure might have ended her career with the CIA (albeit, just the covert aspect; she was perfectly able to continue working as a non-covert officer and didn’t quit the agency until more than 2 years after the Robert Novak column in which her name appeared was published). But it certainly didn’t hurt her pocketbook.
Last week, Times public editor Arthur Brisbane defended his paper’s decision to conceal the information. “In military affairs, there is a calculus that balances the loss of life against the gain of an objective. In journalism, though, there is no equivalent. Editors don’t have the standing to make a judgment that a story — any story — is worth a life.”
His newspaper was one of the most vociferous pushers of the Plame non-scandal. Its editorial board reveled in the conviction of Scooter Libby, urging the judge who issued the sentence to “send him to jail now as a lesson that such efforts to frustrate justice will not be tolerated.” And it accused Karl Rove of “peddling disinformation for propaganda purposes.” Thus far, the editorial board has had nothing to say about Davis.
The Times and many other figures in the media displayed no shortage of indignation over the compromising of Valerie Plame’s identity, in what ultimately proved to be a political controversy. Apparently, those principles evaporate when there’s no Bush administration to attack, and a CIA officer’s life is actually at stake.
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor to The New Republic.