Firing the Leak: Historical Revisionism

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Over the last couple days we've been hearing about how Bush has changed his stance on what would bring him to fire someone over the Valerie Plame leak. Well, ThreeBadFingers and JustOneMinute correct the historical revisionism. Bush originally said that he would fire anyone who did anything illegal. In 2003 he said, "And if the person has violated the law the person will be fired." In 2004, he was asked if he stood by his original claim, and he said yes. Now when he's asked if he will fire anyone involved, he says he'll fire anyone who can be shown to have done something illegal. Where is this supposed change in stance? [hat tip: Instapundit, who refers to this as moving the goalposts]

This reminds me of when everyone was saying that Bush invented the humanitarian aid defense on the eve of the attack on Iraq, when he had been giving it in speeches months beforehand. Read the longer quotes from Bush in those two posts, and then read the Reuters story on this. I have a hard time reading this as anything but outright lying given what Bush had originally said in 2003, what they asked him in 2004 that he said yes to, and what they're now saying about those events. It's not just the media. Howard Dean is accusing Bush of lowering the ethics bar from where he had originally set it. But people will believe this revisionism and repeat it, so their willingness to lie about Bush will have its desired effect. I wonder if that's all that counts for some of these people.

[Update (7 April, 2006): Since so many people are finding this post due to Lewis Libby's testimony that the president authorized him to reveal classified information, I should link to my discussion of that information.]

8 Comments

That statement came up in the comments at one of the posts I linked to. If I'm reading the comment correctly, it appears in the same conversation as one where he had already given the qualifier that it be illegal, which means this statement is in the context assuming that.

Besides, even if he said this on his own there's no inconsistency. The appropriate action might simply be firing someone if it's illegal and something entirely different if it's not.

The appropriate action might simply be firing someone if it's illegal and something entirely different if it's not.

Heh. I thought of that too but is sounds awfully Clintonian in its parsing. And it really sounds like you are trying to have it both ways--that the context dictates that the "leaking classified information" be illegal because "it appears in the same conversation as one where he had already given the qualifier that it be illegal", yet you don't think that "appropriate action" means "firing" even though it appears in the same conversation as one where the response to (illegal) leaking classified info is firing.

Does the context carry over in both cases? or neither. And if only one, why one and not the other? And why the one that favors you but not the one that favors me?

There are two ways of making Bush's statements consistent: 1) to say that Bush will fire anyone who was involved in the leak. If that person (or people) did something illegal, then Bush will fire them as per Bush's recent statements. But even if they didn't cross a legal threshold, if they were involved they will still be fired. 2) To say that Bush always and ever only said that he would fire those who committed crimes, leaving him open to retaining those who leaked classified info but managed to do so legally.

If I were trying to defend an administration that wants to be known for its honor and integrity, I'd be going for option (1). After all, blowing the cover of an undercover agent is certainly unethical, even if you manage to do so in a legal way. On top of that, from a practical point of view, blowing your undercover agent's cover is bad for national security, and Bush's administration want to be known for being strong on national security as well.

However, right leaning bloggers all seem to be going with option (2). Why is that? Option (2) is to insist that Bush hasn't lowered his ethical standards--they've been low all along! How is that helpful to the cause? Sure, Bush won't be guilty of hypocrisy, but it is at the cost of saying that Bush has a fairly decent tolerance of unethical behavior within his administration.

Now the only way I can see to go with option (2) while retaining a high view of Bush's integrity is to conflate legality with morality. That is to say, in this case, that if the leaking of info was legal, then it must also be moral as well. As you know, I have a very very low regard for this argument for there are many many way to be immoral while still remaining legal.

So, since you've decided to not go with options (1), then which which of the following lines of defense are you going to go with? Was the leaking of the classified info somehow moral? Or does Bush tolerate unethical (yet legal) behavior in his administration?

Isn't the most charitable interpretation simply to take him to be repeating what he'd just said but saying it in a different way? The burden of proof seems to me to be on those who want Bush to be contradicting himself or changing his view within a matter of minutes. I haven't been trying to argue that any interpretation is more or less honorable. I've simply challenged the claim that he changed his statement in the last few days given that he said the same thing way back, with the thing in the middle not clearing conflicting with it.

Now I do think your argument regarding the issues I haven't discussed isn't going to work. You seem to be limiting this to two options. Karl Rove did something illegal, or he did something immoral but not illegal. What seems most likely given what we've now heard is that he did something morally unproblematic but that it still counts as being involved. What happened was word was getting around, probably all stemming from the same original source, that this woman was a CIA agent, and reporters were blabbing about it to this unelected person who isn't really a member of the government but is just retained by the president for political advice (and therefore probably wouldn't have this information himself unless there was a prior leak). He heard this information, and when someone else mentioned the rumor he said that he'd heard the rumor too. Mentioning to a reporter that you heard the same rumor from a different reporter that this reporter had heard is simply not morally wrong. It's an acknowledgement of awareness of a rumor that's being passed around.

It is going to be interpreted by some as involvement, however, because the information was discussed. That's why Bush is trying to be careful not to say that anyone who is involved will be fired. Anyone who committed a crime will be fired. Anyone who is involved will be dealt with appropriately, which a careful reader or hearer will realize is simply a statement that the appropriate action is not known until the level and nature of involvement is known.

First off, I don't really care if the President is being consistent with his various statements about who he will fire and under what conditions he will do so. What I actually care about is what level of unethical behaviour the president will permit without firing the person/people who have committed that behavior. This does not presume the guilt of anyone--I really want to know what behavior he will tolerate in his administration. Anything short of a crime? Will he even allow crime as long as it isn't proven? Or will he not tolerate any sort of unethical behavior? His statements are unclear, and I'd love for him to clarify. I don't care if that clarification contradicts his previous statements. So, despite my first post on this thread, don't count me in with the people who just want a "gotcha" on Bush showing that he is inconsistent.

Moving on from Bush to Rove...let us look at the last question of my last post. I asked: Was the leaking of the classified info somehow moral? Or does Bush tolerate unethical (yet legal) behavior in his administration? You seem to be going with the first option: What seems most likely given what we've now heard is that he did something morally unproblematic but that it still counts as being involved. You then proceed to give an account where reportes heard a rumor about Plaime and Rove confirms that "he'd heard the rumor too".

If this story is the "most likely given what we've now heard", then you apparently haven't heard what Cooper had to say on the 17th. First off, according to Cooper in his account of what he told the Grand Jury (hat tip), The line "Yeah, I've heard that too" was said to him by Libby, not Rove, so your "most likely" account is about the wrong person, at least in Cooper's case.

More importantly, Cooper says

So did Rove leak Plame's name to me, or tell me she was covert? No. Was it through my conversation with Rove that I learned for the first time that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and may have been responsible for sending him? Yes. Did Rove say that she worked at the "agency" on "WMD"? Yes. When he said things would be declassified soon, was that itself impermissible? I don't know. Is any of this a crime? Beats me. At this point, I'm as curious as anyone else to see what Patrick Fitzgerald has.

Cooper had not heard any sort of rumor that Plaime worked for the CIA prior to his conversation with Rove. This is in flat contradiction to your "most likely" account. Provided with Cooper's testimony, it is very hard for me not to limit myself to the options of: Karl Rove did something illegal, or he did something immoral but not illegal.

I hadn't heard that detail, I guess. What this would be, then, is that a rumor is going around that Rove hasn't had confirmed (as far as we know), and this reporter was about to publish something that was (or was likely to be) false. In order for Rove to be able to clue him in to why he shouldn't publish the false story, he had to pass along an unconfirmed rumor that he didn't hear through any security clearance.

I'm still having trouble seeing the immorality here. Gossip is certainly a sin, but is it worth firing someone over? If it's not gossip you're worried about but security issues, I'm not sure that's relevant. It's not as if his security clearance got him some secret that he's now revealing. He heard a rumor that something might be true, and that rumor is relevant to a story a reporter has run by him for confirmation. If the rumor is true, the story is false. The reporter doesn't run the story and doesn't reveal the rumor, perhaps at the urging of Rove. I'm not convinced this is a problem. It does in one sense come into tension with the spirit of one law, but not doing it would come into tension with other moral principles. It just doesn't seem to me to be clearly wrong, and an argument can be made that it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.

I'm not sure how to respond to this...we seem to be working from very different sets of facts.

Most, if not all, of your "most likely" story seems to come from an anonymous lawyer who claims to be in a position to know what Rove has testified to in his grand jury hearings.

However, this lawyer's account is contradicted by both Novack's account, and Cooper's account. And as far as I can tell, Rove hasn't confirmed the account.

As a result, I'm not at this point inclined to believe this account because it is: 1)anonymous, 2)not corroborated by anyone, including the person who would be most helped by it, and 3)contradicted by people under oath. [and 4) quite possibly self-contradictory.]

Now certain elements of the anonymous lawyer's account might be true, but where they contradict non-anonymous sworn testimony, I'm inclined to go with the sworn testimony.

As for what I'm concerned about--I'm not concerned about gossip, I'm concerned about national security here. Hopefully you'll agree with me here that if Rove knew that Plaime was undercover and blew her cover, he did something immoral even if technically he was telling the truth and correcting a news story?

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