July 16, 2005

2005-7-15: Special NPR Edition

(Hat tip to Dave for bringing this to my attention.) Apparently, Brooks is a regular commenter on All Things Considered on NPR, and on Thursday appeared on that show to answer questions about the Plame case, the Supreme Court vacancy, and the London attacks. Since his discussion of the Supreme Court vacancy was simply a rehashing of his most recent column (see below for more) and he merely gave some meaningless platitudes in answer to a question about the London attacks, we'll concentrate on his amazing ability to memorize RNC talking points about Plame. First, a transcript (by ear, so any errors are my fault, from here):

Host: David Brooks, is President Bush standing by his closest adviser, or is the absence of a vigorous presidential defense of Karl Rove more noteworthy, despite every other Republican offering a vigorous defense of Karl Rove?

Brooks: Yeah, I think the president is not inclined to leap into this thing where we know so little and when the investigation is still ongoing. It would stun me if George Bush were to walk away from Karl Rove, it would take a lot to pry that guy away from the other guy. And I must say, I'm not really one of those people who understands Roveaphobia, the idea that Karl Rove is the dark genius at the center of the universe. And I must say, the frenzy has gone on around us all week, I still don't know that there's a crime or anything particularly wrong going on here. Joe Wilson was going around saying that the Vice President sent him to Iraq, which turns out to be untrue, and Matt Cooper, from what we know of his memo, was looking into that story, and Rove said "No, it wasn't the Vice President who sent him, his wife's a CIA agent."

Host: If there's no crime, what's Judy Miller, from your newspaper, doing in jail right now?

Brooks: Well, she is there to protect a principle. The principle is that you don't reveal sources: that has nothing to do with crimes.

{Interval in which E.J. Dionne, the other analyst, speaks}

Host: David, one more point here.

Brooks: Well, I mean, we're in Alice in Wonderland territory. The idea -- Joe Wilson was the guy not telling the truth. He said the Vice President sent him there, that turned out from the Senate Intelligence Committee not to be true. He said his wife had nothing to do with him being sent, that turned out according to the Senate Intelligence Committee not to be true. Karl Rove, from what we know from Matt Cooper's memo, was the guy actually telling what happened.

Host: But on a more central pont, he said there's nothing to the Iraq looking for uranium in Niger story, and at that time, that was still the official line of the U.S. that there was an Iraq interest there.

Dionne: And Wilson turned out to be right on that the central point.

Brooks: Well, we don't want to get deep into that, but the CIA said that he did not look deeply into it enough -- the Iraq was trying to get Uranium but that's deep into the weeds it just shows how we're getting into Alice in Wonderland territory.

Before I continue, I just want to confirm that yes, Brooks really did say that Joe Wilson was going around saying that the Vice President had sent him to Iraq (it took me several listens to convince myself), but we'll generous and assume that he simply misspoke.

Now for the analysis. First, Brooks says that "we know so little" about this when in fact we know a lot. For instance, we know that Rove revealed Plame's identity to Matt Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine. The day after this NPR show, we found out that, at the very least, Rove confirmed Plame's identity to Robert Novak (however, Brooks may not have known about this at the time, so we'll gave him a pass for now). One thing we knew, then, beyond all doubt, is that Karl Rove revealed the identity of a CIA agent operating under nonofficial cover to someone not authorized to know that information. Did he do it deliberately? Did he know that she was a NOC at the time? That we don't know. Brooks is, of course, correct to say that "I still don't know if there was a crime . . . ." But what we do know is that Rove acted, at the very least, very recklessly in revealing the identity of an undercover CIA agent and that his act certainly damaged national security. To me, it seems like this is plenty, but Brooks apparently is not satisfied.

It's interesting, though less germane, that immediately after talking about who difficult it would be to "pry that guy away from the other guy" (the guys are Rove and Bush) Brooks declares that he can't understand "the idea that Karl Rove is the dark genius at the center of the universe." Maybe he sees Rove as the good genius at the center of the universe.

Anyway, on to the completely false assertion that Joe Wilson went around telling people that Dick Cheney had sent him to Niger. Courtesy of TPM, we can quote the relevant material from his New York Times op-ed that began the whole thing:

"In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum of agreement that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake — a form of lightly processed ore — by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990's. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office.

After consulting with the State Department's African Affairs Bureau (and through it with Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, the United States ambassador to Niger), I agreed to make the trip. The mission I undertook was discreet but by no means secret. While the C.I.A. paid my expenses (my time was offered pro bono), I made it abundantly clear to everyone I met that I was acting on behalf of the United States government."

Does Wilson assert that he was acting on Cheney's behalf? It doesn't seem so. According to the Daily Howler, the closest Wilson came to making such a statement was on CNN's American Morning, where he said: "Well, I went in, actually in February of 2002 was my most recent trip there—at the request, I was told, of the office of the vice president, which had seen a report in intelligence channels about this purported memorandum of agreement on uranium sales from Niger to Iraq." (emphasis from the Howler). The RNC talking points Brooks is using have a different Wilson quote, however, one taken from a different CNN program and nicely debunked by Josh Marshall. Wilson, in fact, never directly claimed that he was sent to Niger by Cheney, and Brooks is just plain wrong here. However, his constant pushing of this line does open the door for a very revealing quote, in which Brooks is paraphrasing Karl Rove: "No, it wasn't the Vice President who sent him, his wife's a CIA agent." This is so revealing because put this way, you can see that there is really very little connection between the two. Why not say simply say that Cheney didn't send him, it was an internal CIA matter? After all, Wilson was not exactly unqualified for this job: he had been acting ambassador to Iraq at the breakout of the first Iraq war and was commended for his service by President Bush the first. He had also served as a diplomat in West Africa for many years and helped direct Africa policyfor Clinton's NSC. His wife may well have recommended him, but she was not, after all, in charge of the CIA, and presumably he ended up going thanks to these qualifications rather than his wife's status. (Some conservatives, most notably Ann Coulter, have ridiculed a memo from Plame pointing out that Wilson knew the President of Niger and the Minister of Mines, because of course you would never want to send someone on a sensitive diplomatic mission who had actual contacts among people who might know the information he was supposed to obtain). Mentioning Wilson's wife was clearly unnecessary if all Rove wanted to do was warn Cooper off of a story. On the other hand, if he wanted to attack Wilson to prevent his story of no attempts to purchase uranium from Niger from being believed, the suggestion that Wilson only got his job through nepotism could come in very handy.

Next, Brooks gets asked why Judy Miller is in jail. Why, Brooks cries, that's a matter of principle! Certainly no crime is involved here! Well, that's why Miller chose to go to jail rather than talk to prosecutors. Why prosecutors want to talk to her so badly they're willing to send her to jail is another matter entirely, one almost certainly connected to some sort of crime.

Brooks then returns to his patently false claim that Wilson had said that Cheney sent him to Niger, and then makes the possibly true claim that Wilson asserted that his wife had nothing to with his being sent to Niger, finishing by asserting that Karl Rove is the one honest man in the whole story. Finally, Brooks attempts to dispute the fact that Iraq was not trying to purchase uranium from Niger before subsiding as he realizes that he really doesn't want to get into questions of weapons of mass destruction at this point. The best he can do is say that the CIA wasn't sure if Wilson did enough work to warrant his conclusion: this doesn't change the fact that it was still the correct conclusion. So, did Wilson deny that his wife had a role in his going to Niger? Possibly, but really, who cares? This is a minor point, and it's time for the big picture now. In the big picture, Brooks says that yes, Rove leaked the identity of a clandestine CIA operative working on WMD proliferation to the media, damaging national security, but that he was right to do so because otherwise the media might have believed Joe Wilson's lies (remember, this is Brooks's defense: Wilson did not lie about the main point, who sent him to Niger). What was so horrible about Joe Wilson's lies? They might have damaged the credibility of Dick Cheney and thus the administration. In Brooks's formulation, then, it's fine to hurt national security by leaking the identities of covert CIA operatives if that's what it takes to prevent people from thinking that the administration might have lied about something. And, really, this isn't very far from what actually happened, which was the damaging of national security by the leak of a covert CIA operative's identity to the media in order to prevent people from realizing that the administration was exaggerating the threat of Saddam's WMD's. In fact, Brooks has taken the accusation against Rove, mixed in a few attacks on Joe Wilson's credibility, and turned it into his defense of Rove. Which means that he has one thing exactly right: we are deep, deep, deep into "Alice-in-Wonderland territory."