The Washington Times

I don’t have a new theory to add to the mix in the Plame Game, but the speculation on the Web has been immensely entertaining and interesting. The exchange between Cliff May on National Review’s Corner and David Corn of the Nation and has been rich. My old friend John Podhoretz’s interventions, also at the Corner, de-centering the action from the Bush White House to the media players, have been similarly fascinating.

One of the great virtues of the blogosphere is that it proceeds on the assumption that everyone is adequately informed on the basic facts of the subject at hand – or at most a few clicks away from such information, to the links provided. This makes for a huge sense of immediacy. But there is a downside: Participants in the debate are even less obliged than, for example, newspaper writers to go back and retell the essential elements of the story from the beginning – to provide the context, that is, for the latest speculation, deduction or new theory of what really happened. One casualty of this tendency is an absence of perspective.

Anybody who has picked up and read an old newspaper should be reasonably familiar with the problem: Much of what appears, especially in commentary pages where authors don’t want to waste space and therefore tend to make generous assumptions about the familiarity of readers with the basics, is simply incomprehensible. Lionel Trilling once described the “manners” of a society as the “hum and buzz of implication.” Implication is precisely what’s missing from the old clippings – the sense of what everyone was taking for granted in writing what they wrote, their shared assumptions about the moment and its significance.

In the broader sense, this scandal just doesn’t have much going for it. The way you can tell is by taking a big step back from the action in order to recap the story. Let us ask how history will tell this tale, if indeed history is moved to tell it at all. I’ll take a crack: In July 2003, after the Bush administration went to war and toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, a former ambassador and ideological opponent of the administration published a newspaper op-ed piece sharply critical of its handling of intelligence on Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. He relied on his “insider” status as someone the CIA had sent on a special mission to Niger in 2002 to inquire into claims about possible Iraqi attempts to purchase lightly enriched uranium “yellowcake.” The ambassador’s wife, a CIA agent operating under non-official cover (though she was stationed at CIA headquarters and had not worked covertly abroad for several years), played a large role in getting her husband the Niger assignment.

After the op-ed appeared, a syndicated columnist revealed that the ambassador’s wife worked for the CIA, blowing her cover. The columnist, some of whose information came from within the administration, was apparently unaware that she operated under non-official cover. The president’s chief political adviser was one of the officials who spoke to reporters about her.

A White House spokesman broadly denied any inappropriate conduct or wrongdoing by officials. But the president vowed to fire any malefactors, and the administration appointed a special counsel to investigate whether a law against revealing the identity of covert CIA agents had been violated. The special counsel found that the facts of the case did not support the contention that the law in question had been broken (I’m speculating here), but continued the inquiry to pursue the possibility of obstruction of justice or perjury, in the course of which a newspaper reporter was jailed for refusing to divulge sources to a grand jury.

The investigation led to embarrassing disclosures about the extent of the contacts between administration officials and journalists. But there were no indictments, and calls by administration critics for senior officials to resign went unheeded (more speculation).

Now, that may be enough to get Washington all a bubble as of July 2005, but I would suggest that within a few years it will be as thoroughly forgotten as the question, “Who hired Craig Livingstone?” I say this as someone who tirelessly pressed that very question and who can no longer remember exactly why. It arose in relation to one of the lesser scandals of the Clinton era. When it first came to mind, I thought it might have been in connection with Travelgate, but on further reflection, I recall that it had to do with FBI files. The point is that the considerable energy devoted to it at the time has by now dissipated without effect.

Future historians of our times will have an immense amount of material to work from. But I don’t think “implication” is something you can make up for by sheer volume of material. That the blogosphere is humming and buzzing on a subject is surely significant; but the significance of what it is buzzing about is something the blogosphere is not very well equipped to assess.