October 3, 2003
A BuzzFlash Interview with David Corn, the Journalist Who Broke the "Treasongate" Story
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
David Corn, Washington Editor for "The Nation," is a well-known, respected journalist among liberals and his peers. But, in the short-memory span of the eight-hour news cycles, even fellow journalists forget who broke a story. Well, BuzzFlash remembers, because our jaw dropped when we read Corn's July column on "Treasongate" (our term, not Corn's).
It was one of those "why isn't this a front page story around the country" moments when we learned about how two senior administration officials had committed treason by outing a CIA operative specializing in Weapons of Mass Destruction. The column also included quotations from the White House water boy, Robert Novak, who was flippant about his role in the betrayal of our national security.
This week, we returned to Corn to get his updated perspective on "Treasongate." After all, he beat every media outlet in the nation to the scandal -- and figured out the significance of what was in plain site in Novak's July column: members of the Bush Cartel had betrayed the national security of the United States.
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BUZZFLASH: On July 16th, you wrote the first commentary to identify the significance of Robert Novak's July 14th column in which a CIA operative was outed by two "senior administration officials." At the time of your column in "The Nation," you identified the serious legal violation that had probably occurred as well as the threat to our national security posed by the identification of Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA officer. BuzzFlash wrote two subsequent editorials on July 21st [LINK] and 23rd [LINK] following up on your column and blasting the betrayal of our nation's security that had occurred. Yet, except for a few blips in the mainstream news, this egregious act of vengeance on the part of the White House didn't make national headlines until Sunday, September 28th, as a result of a Washington Post story. Why did it take more than two months for this betrayal of a CIA operative to become a headline story?
DAVID CORN: The national press in Washington has a bias: not so much to the left or to the right, but toward officialdom. Many -- though not all -- journalists take their cues from the official agenda, whether it's the latest initiative form the White House or the latest spin from the Democrats. At first, no one in officialdom paid (public) attention to this story. The White House said nothing. The CIA was mum. And the opposition Democrats said little. So while my initial article resonated outside of Washington and generated much "buzz," it did little publicly inside Washington. Then the story hit the ranks of officialdom when the CIA requested that the Justice Department investigate the White House. That is a big deal and, naturally, attracted much notice.
BUZZFLASH: The CIA pursued a formal complaint with the Justice Department. What is the significance of the CIA basically saying that they have determined that individuals in the Bush administration may have committed a crime and done harm to the CIA?
CORN: In cases like this the CIA makes the first call. It determines whether there was a possible violation and whether there is a reason to pursue a legal case. There is an 11-point checklist that it runs through in making such a determination. If a threshold is met, then it asks DOJ to investigate. Next, it is up to Justice to decide if an investigation should be launched. The significance, then, of the CIA's request is that it indicates that the Agency believed this leak was a serious matter and did cause harm.
It means that Valerie Plame was likely not -- as some GOP'ers have insinuated -- merely a secretary or an analyst who really didn't need cover. Also, this was, as I have written, the equivalent of the CIA declaring bureaucratic nuclear war on the White House. CIA chief George Tenet could not have allowed this to happen lightly.
BUZZFLASH: The White House media shills are claiming no great harm was done, clearly using message points provided by the GOP or the White House. Doesn't this ring a bit hollow from an administration that declares anyone who doesn't agree with them as siding with the terrorists, as Ashcroft has frequently proclaimed? What could be more helpful to terrorism than likely rendering inoperative a CIA specialist in tracking the trafficking in Weapons of Mass Destruction?
CORN: Yes. The spin the last few days has been as bad as I've ever seen it. They are arguing this is no big deal, while attacking the credibility of Joe Wilson, trying to make him the issue. It still remains to be seen exactly what the consequences were of outing Plame. It could well be that the harm was not as bad as we can imagine -- that is, the harm to national security. It surely must be a tremendous blow to her and her family. But the White House advocates who are arguing little damage came from this leak are blowing smoke in the sense that they do not know. They are simply making it up.
BUZZFLASH: Bob Novak is now trying to minimize the damage that was done with his revelation. But he admitted to you in July that the CIA asked him not to expose Plame and that he ran with the story because, "I figured if they gave it to me, they'd give it to others...I'm a reporter. Somebody gives me information and it's accurate, I generally use it." In spinning his July 14th column differently than he wrote it, hasn't he crossed the boundary from being a journalist to participating in the White House spin and GOP message points?
CORN: That is a question that can often be applied to journalists who make use of leaks from the government. Sometimes leaked information is indeed important for the public to know about. Leaks do play a valuable role in keeping a check on government. (Ask Dan Ellsberg.) But frequently journalists are transmission belts exploited by one party or another to advance a political or policy agenda. Every journalist who engages in this sort of reporting has to ask him/herself: am I allowing myself to be used in an inappropriate manner. As I've said, in this case Novak had to decide which was the real story: that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA or that Bush administration officials were leaking info on her.
BUZZFLASH: In trying to minimize the growing scandal about who in the Bush Administration outed a CIA agent, the GOP and -- we assume -- the White House are also returning, once again, to smearing Joe Wilson, claiming he is just a partisan Democrat. They are also claiming that Valerie Plame was an insignificant CIA analyst. Isn't this more of the same smear and deflect tactics that are the hallmark of Karl Rove?
CORN: So say the reporters who have covered him over the years. Let's be fair to Karl Rove -- even if he isn't to his opponents. (Just ask John McCain!). He may or may not be involved in the leak, but he has a past record of engaging in below-the-belt politics. So if now he is a chief suspect, well, he brought that on himself. What goes around comes around. But the attacks on Wilson have been shameful. What a surprise, he's a Democrat! He also was widely praised -- by Bush the First, by Evans and Novak -- for his courageous stint as the last acting ambassador in Iraq before the first Gulf War. This is, as you know, not about Wilson. The only relevant issue is whether Bushies leaked sensitive information as part of a political hit job.
Of course, Wilson is mad. Wouldn't you be? Of course, he wants to raise a stink. But this is a campaign of blaming the victim. The strategic point here -- and there is one -- is for the GOP'ers to make this scandal look like another one of those nasty partisan mud-wrestles that the public never likes. Turn it into a political controversy, not a criminal one. Then it all comes out blurry and muddy in the wash. (Bad metaphor, I know.) But that is the intent: to fuzzy up the picture and cause people to shrug their shoulders and say, "it's just politics."
BUZZFLASH: The weekend Washington Post story identifies someone in the Bush administration who confirmed that a person or persons working for Bush did indeed out Plame to Novak and other journalists? Do you think that there is an intense effort in the White House to find out who broke the Bush loyalty oath and confirmed the CIA operative outing to the Post? Isn't that really the person Bush most wants to identify?
CORN: Probably. Lots of guessing here over who that person is. A White House official with a conscience? George Tenet with a beef? Someone who is on the leaking? Someone who heard about it -- or saw an email about it -- after the fact? But it's a good guess that person's conversation with the Post did not please Rove and Company.
BUZZFLASH: Okay, you were the first one to "break" this scandal in your July 16th "The Nation" commentary "A White House Smear." Any predictions of how this might play out, different scenarios that you could see happening?
CORN: I gave up making predictions a long time. This could turn into another Watergate. Then again, it could fizzle and become another one of those leak investigations that go nowhere in Washington. But remember, many scandals in Washington start with a focus on one alleged act of wrongdoing and then spread to others (Watergate, Iran-contra, Whitewater). This is a serious matter. It might be an isolated episode. It might be part of something larger. There might be a cover-up that then becomes the subject of the investigation.
This affair can take many different bounces -- perhaps even some our imaginations cannot at this point fathom. And keep in mind, in a scandal like this there are two components: the legal dimension and the sleaze dimension. Not all bad behaviors are illegal. An investigation may lead to revelations that are bad for the White House, but do not lead to prosecutions. In any event, the White House should be worried, and judging from the reckless spin that is being generated, they are.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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