Mark Steyn says the CIA scandal is important not because it put an agent’s life at risk — it didn’t — but because it shows that US Intelligence is either obstructive or inept
America now has its own version of l’affaire Gilligan. As in Britain, the story involves journalists, and sources, and the leaking of the name of a government employee, and an investigation into which high-up did the leaking, and how badly the country’s leaders will be damaged, etc. The details of the Kelly/Gilligan business never really held anybody’s attention over here: most people I’ve spoken to heard about the ‘sexed-up’ accusation and the suicide, decided it confirmed their low view of the BBC and then moved on to other things. Incredible as it may seem, it proved impossible to sex up Alastair Campbell into a topic of interest to an American audience. Alone in this Doughty Street hotbed of fanatical Gilliganistas, I took the line of reasonably informed US observers that Gilligan and the BBC were at fault, which may be why I didn’t get invited to any of The Spectator’s 175th birthday celebrations.
But I digress. Like the Hutton stuff, what’s happening in Washington has a lot of ‘inside baseball’, but underneath the surface flim-flam are matters of profound importance. Early last year, the Bush administration dispatched a career diplomat to Niger to check out whether there was anything to the rumours that Saddam was trying to buy uranium from Africa. The former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV returned from the dark continent, reported his findings and was distressed to discover from this January’s state of the Union address that the White House still inclined to the British view of the situation. So in July he wrote a column for the New York Times headlined ‘What I Didn’t Find In Africa’. By ‘Africa’, the Times meant Niger, which is the only country Ambassador Wilson visited. Shortly thereafter, two SAOs (Senior Administration Officials) leaked the name of Wilson’s wife to my Chicago Sun-Times colleague Robert Novak: her name is Valerie Plame and she works for the CIA. Nobody paid any attention for two months. Then another SAO from some other faction in the administration counter-leaked details of the original leak from the original SAOs. And now it’s Watergate. In theory.
And if you watch the network news that’s pretty much where the facts stop. The Independent summed up the angle most of the press seems to be interested in: ‘Disclosed CIA Officer Fears For Her Life’ — i.e., Ms Plame’s name was leaked in order to put her in danger. The implication seems to be that she’s on some top-secret mission but, like 007, travelling under her own name, perhaps as an innocuous businesswoman: ‘The name’s Plame. Valerie Plame. Universal Export.’
‘Very interesting, Ms Plame,’ replies Blofeld, stroking his cat, in whose litter tray lies the front page of that day’s Washington Post. ‘Any relation to the CIA agent of the same name?’
The notion that Ms Plame ‘fears for her life’ is somewhat undermined by the fact that her gabby hubby, currently on TV, radio and sympathetic websites 22 hours a day, is clearly having a ball, loving the attention and happy to yuk it up about how he and the missus have been ‘discussing who would play her in the movie’. Quite what Ms Plame does for the CIA remains unclear. One alleged colleague says he’s worked with her for 30 years, which seems unlikely, as she’s only 40 and if the Company was that good at spotting early talent it would be in a lot better shape. It seems that at one point she was a NOC, which means Non-Official Cover, which means if the other side gets wind of who you really are, you’re on your own. But her time as a NOC looks to have ended five years ago, so that under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act leaking her name is not a criminal offence, though it may yet finish you off politically. It’s certainly morally dubious, not because it exposes Ms Plame and her camera-hogger of a husband to danger but because it could place in jeopardy many of her contacts in whatever countries she’s worked in over the years.
But, despite the media’s efforts to oomph it up into Watergate — or ‘Intimigate’ — it doesn’t make any sense as a conventional political scandal. Even if you accept that it’s technically possible to leak something that’s widely known around town and published in the guy’s Who’s Who entry, if the object was to discredit Joe Wilson why leak the name of his wife? On his own, Wilson comes over like a total flake — not a sober striped-pants diplomat but a shaggy-maned ideologically driven kook whose hippie-lyric quotes make a lot more sense than his neocon-bashing diatribes for leftie dronefests like the Nation. This is a guy who says things like, ‘Neoconservatives and religious conservatives have hijacked this administration, and I consider myself on a personal mission to destroy both.’ He spends his days dreaming of the first sentence of his obituary: ‘Joseph C. Wilson IV, the Bush I administration political appointee who did the most damage to the Bush II administration.’ Imagine Michael Moore and his ego after dropping 300lbs on the Atkins diet and you’re close enough. By revealing the fact that Mrs Wilson is a cool blonde CIA agent, all you do is give her husband a credibility lacking in almost every aspect of his speech, mien and coiffure.
Even his original New York Times piece must rank as one of the paper’s weakest efforts to damage Bush: in Niger, Ambassador Wilson says he spent ‘eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country’s uranium business’. He concedes he never filed a written report and most of the rest of the column reads like a travelogue (‘Through the haze, I could see camel caravans crossing the Niger river’). As a claim to expertise, it’s laughable. So why leak his wife’s name? You don’t discredit a vain bumbler by making it look as if he’s got a fast track to the real goods. To insiders, the letters ‘CIA’ may be a byword for an arthritic bureaucracy whose hands have been tied by Congress for a generation, but in the popular mind they’re still the all-knowing spooks who can find out everything one way or the other.
No, this isn’t Watergate; it’s bigger than that. The version of the story that still fits the facts is in that Bob Novak Sun-Times column from July. Novak wanted to know why Wilson had been chosen to go to Africa. It’s one thing not to be a card-carrying neocon, quite another to be as antipathetic to the administration and the war as this fellow. The White House asked the CIA, the CIA recommended Wilson, and their recommendation was accepted automatically. But what the original leakers told Novak was that it was Mrs Wilson who’d proposed her husband for the job. The Company responded that their counter-proliferation officials came up with Wilson and they only used the wife to contact him.
It doesn’t really matter which version you believe, because the end result’s the same: an agency known to be opposed to war in Iraq sent an employee’s spouse also known to be opposed to war in Iraq on a perfunctory joke mission. And, after eight days sipping tea and meeting government officials in one city of one country, Ambassador Wilson gave a verbal report to the CIA and was horrified to switch on his TV and see Bush going on about what British Intelligence had learned about Saddam and Africa. As I wrote in this space last July:
‘The intel bureaucracy got the Sudanese aspirin factory wrong, f
ailed to spot 9/11 coming, and insisted it was impossible for any American to penetrate bin Laden’s network, only to have Johnnie bin Joss-Stick from hippy-dippy Marin County on a self-discovery jaunt round the region stroll into the cave and be sharing the executive latrine with the A-list jihadi within 20 minutes.
‘So, if you’re the President and the same intelligence bureaucrats who got all the above wrong say the Brits are way off the mark, there’s nothing going on with Saddam and Africa, what do you do? Do you say, “Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day”? Or do you make the reasonable assumption that, given what you’ve learned about the state of your humint (human intelligence) in the CIA, is it likely they’ve got much of a clue about what’s going on in French Africa? Isn’t this one of those deals where the Brits and the shifty French are more plugged in?’
I’ll stand by that, as does Her Majesty’s government. No political leader is obliged to accept a particular intelligence finding. Invariably, you’re presented with contradictory pieces of information and evidence, and you’re obliged to choose. If President Bush chooses to believe British and French Intelligence over the CIA, that’s his prerogative. It’s also a telling comment on the state of the agency. When M sends Bond somewhere to nose around, his car usually gets run off the road as he’s leaving the airport and the croupier he has sex with that evening turns out to be an enemy agent. But, unless you get that lucky, you wind up doing what Wilson did: drinking tea with the stooges the government arranges for you to meet. Everything about Mr Wilson’s day trip to the heart of darkness suggests either wilful obstruction or sheer ineptness by the CIA. The latest round of counter-leaks comes either from within the agency or from the rogue State Department, which, even on the days when it’s not sounding like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the House of Saud, is rarely on the same page as the White House — on Iran, Arafat and much else.
Why is this important? Because, in a nutshell, Iraq is the last war. That’s to say, the last war in which the Bush administration will spend the months beforehand amassing a quarter of a million troops on an enemy’s borders. Doing it that way gives the enemy too long to enlist his own forces — the Western media, the UN and the moth-eaten French pantomime mule of Messrs Chirac and de Villepin. All these parties are dedicated to ensuring that even when the Americans win, they lose. The speed with which they’ve managed to taint victory in Iraq is impressive, though it bears no relation to anything so tiresome as reality. So from hereon in engagements in the war of terror will be swift, sudden and as low-key as can be managed. The US will depend not on multilateralism but bilateralism — the many agreements the Americans have signed for base rights and training missions and other below-the-radar stuff from the Middle East through old Soviet Central Asia to the Pacific. There will be, faute de mieux, a reliance on light and mobile configurations and special forces.
But all these engagements will depend on good intelligence. If the Third Infantry Division rolls across the Syrian border, it can handle anything Boy Assad can throw at it. But, if you’re sending in a few Delta Force guys to take discreet care of a small problem, you need to be very well informed of the facts on the ground. Two years after 9/11, the CIA is still not up to the job of human intelligence. It has no idea of what’s going on in Iran or North Korea. It relies on aerial photographs and ‘chatter’ — which is a fancy term for monitoring e-mail. But it has no insight whatsoever into the minds of the Politburo or the mullahs. So, when it comes to their nuclear ambitions, all we have is guesswork — or, more accurately, wishful thinking, given that both Hashemi Rafsanjani and the Norks have promised to use their nukes as soon as they can.
If sending Joseph C. Wilson IV to Niger for a week is the best the world’s only hyperpower can do, that’s a serious problem. If the Company knew it was a joke all along, that’s a worse problem. It means Mr Bush is in the same position with the CIA as General Musharraf is with Pakistan’s ISI: when he makes a routine request, he has to figure out whether they’re going to use it to try and set him up. This is no way to win a terror war.