When outing a CIA agent is a 'mistake' and when it's 'treason'

Byron York, writing in the Washington Times, asks some pertinent questions about the difference between the White House outing the Afghanistan chief of station for the CIA last weekend and the Bush administration outing of Valerie Plame several years ago.

Why was the Obama goof a "mistake" and the Bush unmasking of Plame "treason"?

The leak, if that's what it can be called, happened over the weekend as President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. In a routine email to the press, the administration included a name with the description "Chief of Station" after it -- a clear reference to the ranking CIA official in Kabul. It's hard to imagine a more sensitive assignment in a more dangerous place, and blowing the station chief's cover -- in an email to 6,000 reporters, no less -- will surely have repercussions.

The White House quickly explained that a mistake had been made, but did not offer any details. Top officials announced that White House counsel Neil Eggleston, a veteran of many Washington investigations, will "look into" the matter. "It shouldn't have happened," deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken told CNN on Tuesday. "We're trying to understand why it happened. In fact, the chief of staff, Denis McDonough, asked the White House counsel to look into it, to figure out what happened and to make sure it won't happen again."

Many observers seem satisfied with the White House's explanation that the incident was just a regrettable error. And that is indeed what it appears to be. But such assessments represent a remarkable change in tone from the discussion several years ago, when the George W. Bush administration leaked Valerie Plame's identity as part of a bitter fight over the origin and direction of the Iraq war. Back then, it was quite common to hear the words "traitor" and "treason" used to describe top Bush officials involved in the controversy.

There's no doubt the Bush officials deliberately revealed Plame's CIA connection, if not her name, to the press. But the Plame leak could be characterized as inadvertent in one sense: the leakers, both in the State Department and the White House, did not know that Plame's status at the CIA was classified when they mentioned her to reporters. That is why no one was ever charged with leaking her identity; they did not knowingly and deliberately reveal classified information. So in that sense it was all a mistake. Yes, it was inadvertent, colossally stupid, an embarrassment -- but it was a mistake.

York goes on to detail how the "treason" meme took hold and how liberals - who never met a CIA leaker they didn't love - excoriated the Bush administration for outing Plame.

But what did we expect? The Plame controversy is old news, Scooter Libby has been pardoned, and the Bush administration is rapidly retreating into the rear view mirror of history. The media has no desire to make comparisons like this, not just to protect Obama, which they are becoming more reluctant to do, but because the Plame Affair is history, not news.

That CIA station chief's career has been ruined. He will never be able to work undercover again. Meanwhile, Valerie Plame went on to fortune and glory as a liberal icon, even having a movie based on her life released by an adoring Hollywood (it bombed).

Some "mistakes" are more fortunate than others.



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