OK, I'm going to comment on this a little bit after all.

First, here is today's story from the Washington Post. Here is the Novak column. And here is a roundup from when this story broke in July.

You can see that, even in July, people went for the jugular. 'Maybe the VP himself.' Huge 'felony'. 'Almost a confession.' And yet, the story died. Why is that?

I wrote the story off because it was based entirely on unnamed sources. Journalistic ethics haven't been especially impressive lately, but that's not what I'm talking about. Let's say Novak was fully ethical--I don't know the fellow, so it's only fair to give him the benefit of those charges we can't evaluate (it was obviously unethical by my standards to print the story outing a CIA agent--which is why we learn today that 5 of 6 journalists didn't print it). Nevertheless, let's say Novak was 100% ethical in all other points.

As a journalist, he knew that printing that story would bring questions about his sources. He also knew that, if he ever gave up his sources, he would never work again. And, further, as a journalist he is protected by the First Amendment--he can't be forced to yield his sources. So, the reader of the July piece can reasonably expect that the claims Novak makes will have to be evaluated on faith alone. You can't really judge whether you ought to take the word of an anonymous person.

Of course, Watergate was broken open by an anonymous. So, the sensible person does what we all did--we shrug, and wait to see if anything comes of it that can be evaluated.

Today, we have a new story--which is also based entirely on anonymous sources. A "Senior Administration official," two unnamed "Top White House officials," this is of no use whatever. We are left scrabbling after what "Top" and "Senior" normally mean in this context, and pulling feathers and thin reeds out of the air. Yet there is still not a name to hold onto.

But already we're having a field day of calls for impeaching Bush. "Rule of Law!" yells Atrios, citing two laws that he asserts must have been broken by the President. Well, sure--if the President is guilty, let's have the rule of law. Impeachment followed by a trial in the Senate is fine, an actual trial by jury to proceed once he's out of office.

But first let's be clear on one or two things:

1) There is no evidence at all that an actual pair of "top officials" existed as such. We don't know what Novak was calling a top official because we don't know--and will never know from Novak--who the sources were. These "top" officials could have been deputy undersecretaries for agriculture. Just because "top" normally means something in journalism doesn't mean it always means that thing. The fact that Novak expected his sources to remain secret means that we can't evaluate these sorts of charges with the surgical precision some seem to feel is possible. I've seen lists of suspects with as few as eight people on them. Get a grip.

2) There is no information at all on what GWB may or may not have done about this internally. The fact that Town Hall runs a column citing an unnamed source claiming that someone in your office committed a crime is not evidence that a crime has been committed of the sort that compels you to report it to a judge. If GWB actually knew that the charge was true--well, that's another story, of course. But if he simply had it mentioned at his news briefing, there's nothing de jure that requires him to respond to an anonymous allegation with, "Quick! Call a judge!" An informal internal inquiry--which might well have netted nothing if the two jokers had realized how much trouble they were in and clammed up--would be sufficient. Hell, doing nothing would suffice as far as the law was concerned.

3) Again from Atrios, we have an excellent overview of internal security policies that are designed to prevent intelligence leaks. The conclusions drawn are out of line, however. The simple fact is that the biggest danger to a CIA officer's cover is not from professional matters, but social matters.

There is simply no telling who knew that this woman was an undercover officer. We don't know who she told, for example--certainly her husband, maybe a friend. There are other ways that this kind of information gets around besides code-word communications. "So and so is a secret agent" is gossip of the most irresistible sort--anyone who dealt with her on an everyday basis probably knew, at least informally, that it was the case. If they knew informally, they hadn't signed the tons of nondisclosure agreements. It is still illegal, but having not signed the papers, they probably didn't think much about sharing a secret. Gossip is, I have found since moving to D.C., a Washingtonian favorite passtime.

So: these "Top" officials, even if they were in fact Top Officials, may not be associated with national security at all. That's just something to keep in mind.

Ultimately, I think all we can do is let the inquiry sort things out. I'm sure the CIA will take this quite seriously, and should have no trouble persuading the other involved agencies to do so as well. Still, I honestly don't expect major bloodshed over this. That's not to say the guilty parties aren't deserving of justice under the law. It is only to say that they may prove quite difficult to find. When you consider in the social factor, it becomes very difficult to draw lines around who might have known that she was an officer, and who might have wanted to share it.

As for that impeachment--it may have to wait a bit. I can't see anything here that would have required the president, or anyone especially close to him, to have been involved. Even if all the charges in the Post piece are perfectly true, these Top officials may prove to be far smaller fish than expected; and getting the kind of proof required by a court of law, when most of those in the know are going to invoke Journalistic immunity, may be difficult indeed.

Of course, it may prove that it really was Dick Cheney, based on information he read right out of a codeworded report. I wouldn't give odds on it if I were you.

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