August 31, 2006

Valerie Plame and the Risen Principle

Carroll Andrew Morse

As National Review’s Rich Lowry points out, the investigation of the Valerie Plame leak was obstructed by bureaucrats – a cabal if you will – who had motives different from carrying out the policies set by the elected President...

The Armitage revelation and way he and Colin Powell handled it—in the most self-serving way possible, with maximum damage inflicted on the administration—demonstrates what the real cabal in the first Bush administration was. It was Powell and Armitage, and their minions like Lawrence Wilkerson and Carl Ford. These people spent countless hours sitting around and figuring out how they could leak and use anonymously sourced hits within the press to undermine Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rove (and, later, when he was up for the UN job, John Bolton). Powell was always very shrewd about it and left no fingerprints. Since Powell and Armitage didn't have strong policy motivations, they turned everything into a personal turf war, which went a long way to embittering and making dysfunctional the first administration.

Yes, Bush and Rice should have stopped it, but a lot of the blame goes to Powell and Armitage for engaging in this kind of bureaucratic tribal warfare in the first place. Of course, the story in the press was always that Powell and Co. were the embattled, innocent victims—but that was partly because they were feeding so many of the reporters. It's outrageous that because this small group was so adept at leaking and so adept at working the press that they managed to get the administration's "neo-cons" portrayed in the media as an out-of-control cabal, when these officials were just supporting the policy of the administration that Powell and Armitage and their small group of allies so disdained and did so much to undermine.

There is certainly an element of anti-Bush bias in how the Plame story has been covered (and non-covered since Armitage's role has become known). But the coverage of the Plame story is also another clear example of the Risen principle in action…
  • The Risen Principle: The journalistic assumption that what happens within government bureaucracy, below the level of the leadership, is either beyond reproach or not worth reporting on and that failures within government departments are always failures of the leadership to set proper policies and never poor execution or active obstruction of otherwise effective policies.
Doesn't that perfectly describe how the MSM approached the Plame story? They assumed it had to be someone at the top acting in concert with the President and refused to take interest in the possibility that someone in the middle could be pursuing his own agenda.

Unfortunately, emboldened by the realization that mainstream journalists are incurious about bureaucratic obstructionism, current and future bureaucrats will be encouraged to pursue private agendas, knowing they will never be called to account.

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I take issue with this statement:

"The Armitage revelation and way he and Colin Powell handled it—in the most self-serving way possible, with maximum damage inflicted on the administration—demonstrates what the real cabal in the first Bush administration was."

If Powell was truly part of the inner Cabal, then there would have been a clear Iraq exit strategy, IMO. I don't think Powell ever was and the thrust of the NRO piece loses efficacy for me after disputing this point.

Posted by: don roach at August 31, 2006 6:20 PM

I see three incidences of false logic in this post, Andrew.

1. The Risen principle does not seem to take into account the idea that any kind of cover up of governmental wrongdoing is always going to receive attention.

2. The idea that there was an inherent anti-Bush bias in the Plame coverage. The relationship between any president and the press since Nixon has been adverserial. Certainly, there were many people, including myself, believed that the mainstream media had it out for Clinton during his impeachment. The truth is that the mainstream media views any president as worthy of investigation because they are following the Watergate script.

3. There has been no lack of coverage of the Isikoff revelations. But Armitage has yet to go on the record as revealing himself as the leak - which is decidedly different than an indictment against Scooter Libby.

The truth is that every administration ALWAYS has inner fighting and factionalism. The idea that Armitage is not being held accountable is just not true - if published reports are correct, he reported himself and was determined to have done nothing wrong. But lying to a prosecutor during an investigation was determined to be wrongdoing - thus the right person is being held responsible for his actions.

Posted by: Suzanne at September 1, 2006 6:53 PM


First, there’s one factual update you need to be aware of. Armitage reported his leak to Robert Novak right away, but didn’t tell anyone of his leak to Bob Woodward until November 2005, two years after the investigation started.

Re 1: So what legitimate purpose was served by Armitage waiting so long to reveal the second leak? The answer provided by the MSM is “who cares”.

It is the MSM that is not applying your standard of investigating any kind of governmental wrongdoing, because this generation of reporters has internalized the Risen principle – government failures are always assumed to be failures of the leadership to set proper policies. Once it becomes obvious that this is not the case, there’s no story anymore.

In other words, when the Plame story appeared to have started somewhere in the leadership, it was a big story. Now that it looks like it started somewhere in the middle, divorced from the leadership, it’s a footnote. Time to move on to the next scandal involving the leadership.

This is a much more benign explanation for the MSM’s incuriosity about top State Department officials attempting to obstruct the President’s policies than partisan or ideological anti-Bush bias is.

Re 2: As a radio host that you may be familiar with says, “You’re makin’ my point”. What you’ve said is that the MSM has applied the Risen principle to its coverage of every administration since the Nixon administration. That doesn’t mean that they’ve been practicing maximally informative journalism.

And since you bring up the Clinton administration, in the Clinton years, one form the Risen principle would have taken would have been an assumption that it was not necessary to look beyond this President’s weak character and need to be liked by everyone to explain any problems his administration had in carrying out its policies. Sound familiar?

Re 3: Again YMMP. We are now getting a pretty clear picture that the factionalism between the Defense Department and State Department bureaucracies was a major factor – if not the major factor – in the post-liberation effort in Iraq going wrong. If such factionalism is big enough to derail a war effort, isn’t that something worth reporting on?

Not if you’re James Risen, who assumes that informing the public about bureaucratic factionalism is not important, because “career professionals” will eventually arrive at the right policy, and that the country (and the President and his cabinet!) should only be interested in their final decree. Your complaint is with Risen's principle, not with me.

Posted by: Andrew at September 2, 2006 12:46 PM