The Latest on Valerie Plame

Newsweek and Instapundit pick up on an idea I first saw floated by a commenter at Calpundit about a week ago, and which seemed at the time to be immediately more credible than the alternative: that the “leak” story is much narrower than critics of the Bush Administration had been hoping, and in a way that is almost certain to disappoint Joseph Wilson and others who had hoped to see Karl Rove “frog-marched” out of the White House in irons. (Calpundit himself notes the new theory but is agnostic, and Mark Kleiman also backtracks a bit).
To summarize, if you haven’t followed this saga, the critics suggested that the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity as a covert CIA operative must have been part of a coordinated campaign by the White House, based on three things: (1) the anonymous Washington Post source who leaked the existence of the leak investigation said that six other reporters were contacted, but only Bob Novak ran the story; (2) Wilson claims that a reporter told him “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove, who said your wife was fair game.” and (3) Bush and everyone who works for him is evil.
Well, (3) is an article of faith for some folks, but it looks like there’s just nothing but hope to support (1) and (2). On (1), the Newsweek story suggests that what really happened is that some senior administration official on the national security side — perhaps someone like Lewis Libby who’d had meetings with Plame’s colleagues and may have just assumed (stupidly) that she was a known Langley-based analyst (it appears this is consistent with her job duties over the last 5 or 6 years) without thinking about the fact that she could have previously been a covert operative — blabbed her CIA status to Bob Novak as part of a broader theory of what was wrong with Wilson’s Niger mission, and calls to any other reporters happened only after Rove’s people read Novak’s Monday morning column. This makes sense — Rove seems more likely to have found out this type of detail from the newspapers, and I’m sure Novak is a must-read for Beltway insiders. As to (2), Newsweek suggests that the blunt formulation of “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove, who said your wife was fair game” was Chris Matthews talking (after Novak’s column ran), and anyone who’s watched Matthews’ show can see him summarizing a conversation that way, where Rove says the real angle is that Wilson’s wife picked him for the Niger assignment, and Matthews boils it down to “Karl Rove is after your wife.”
Looks like this story could be a lot smaller than its proponents hoped. Which is not to say there’s no scandal here, but rather one that doesn’t reach very far. Stay tuned.
(Daniel Drezner has more, and don’t forget to keep checking Tom Maguire’s blog on this issue).
UPDATE: Several of the sources I linked to above note that Atrios is pushing this item from the original Washington Post story as conclusive proof that Newsweek’s story is a fraud:
Another journalist yesterday confirmed receiving a call from an administration official providing the same information about Wilson’s wife before the Novak column appeared on July 14 in The Post and other newspapers.
The journalist, who asked not to be identified because of possible legal ramifications, said that the information was provided as part of an effort to discredit Wilson, but that the CIA information was not treated as especially sensitive. “The official I spoke with thought this was a part of Wilson’s story that wasn’t known and cast doubt on his whole mission,” the person said, declining to identify the official he spoke with. “They thought Wilson was having a good ride and this was part of Wilson’s story.”

Assuming that the WaPo’s unidentified source is credible, this supports the idea that Novak’s source told essentially the same story to one other journalist. That doesn’t undercut Novak’s account of how the conversation unfolded, it doesn’t necessarily implicate anybody but the people implicated by Novak, and it’s consistent with the idea that Novak’s leaker (who we’ll call Source A) simply didn’t realize that Plame was a former undercover operative whose indentity was apparently still classified.
Who’s at fault here? Besides Source A, there’s Source B (the guy who confirmed this to Novak by saying, ”Oh, you know about it”) and the idiots at CIA who not only didn’t expend too much energy waving Novak off the story but then compounded the problem by confirming Plame’s identity to other news outlets who called after seeing the Novak column. Clearly, Source A needs to be fired no matter who he is, and the CIA people should as well. (Source B might have an excuse here, for example if Source A is his boss or someone whose judgment on security issues he’d trusted, but it doesn’t look so great for Source B at the moment either).