July 11, 2005


It's a definite description, not a rigid designator. If the prosecution wants an expert witness to argue that that doesn't matter, I hereby offer my services. (Though I think Steven Boër and William Lycan, authors of Knowing Who, hold the same view and are more impressively credentialed.)

Site news: Comment and trackback spam has been incessant lately. As a result I've disallowed HTML in comments (and turned trackback off completely). If I can figure out how, or some nice person tells me, I'll make it so the comment box doesn't ask you for a web page. Apologies for the incovenience, but with luck this will drive away the spammers.

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 11, 2005 06:19 AM

I don't get it. The distinction seems to me to matter absolutely crucially for the legal purposes involved. If Rove told Cooper that Wilson was recruited by his wife who works at the CIA, did he reveal the identity of a covert agent? To me, it seems perfectly reasonable to say he did not.

I guess my intutions are partly informed by the fact that it certainly can't show that he *knowingly* did so, an even more substantial hurdle to clear.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at July 11, 2005 11:23 AM

There's absolutely no way *that* distinction can be crucial. If Rove says "The woman in the corner is a CIA agent" it's OK, but if he says "That woman is a CIA agent," pointing at the woman in the corner, it's not? I don't think so. And I think in this context "Joe Wilson's wife" is like "The woman in the corner"--a unique description that anyone with half a brain could convert to all manner of other descriptions. As opposed to, say, "The person who tapped Wilson for this mission is a covert CIA operative," which is a unique description but doesn't help identify the operative in any meaningful sense.

Now none of this shows that Rove knew she was covert. Even if he did know, one could maybe argue--though I wouldn't want to try it in court--that saying "She's a CIA employee" isn't the same as exposing her as a *covert* CIA employee (though I forget--does the law forbid exposing people as covert employees, or does it forbid exposing them as employees when they are in fact covert?). I think Josh Marshall has shown well enough, for the purposes of common sense, that Novak's use of the word "operative" indicates that *someone* knew Plame was covert and exposed her as such, but that by itself wouldn't stand up beyond a reasonable doubt in court.

(Marshall: http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/week_2005_07_10.php#006041 and follow links. Damn that jerk who banned HTML in comments!)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 11, 2005 02:02 PM

Matt, the two most effective things I did to lessen comment spam:

1. Change the name of your comment script from mt-comments.cgi to [anything else].cgi. Supposedly, mixing upper and lower case letters makes it a bit more difficult for bots besides.

2. Instead of having the comment link bring up a pop-up window, make it go to the individual archive with comments attached.

Those two steps eliminated about 98% of the comment spam in one fell swoop. Instructions for each are at http://tinyurl.com/4k54n/

Posted by: apostropher at July 11, 2005 02:05 PM

> There's absolutely no way *that* distinction can be crucial. If Rove says "The woman in the corner is a CIA agent" it's OK, but if he says "That woman is a CIA agent," pointing at the woman in the corner, it's not? I don't think so.

That's a different case. Perhaps it gets a different result because it is doubtful such a use of a descriptive phrase would be taken attributively.

I was not really wanting to rest on the distinction between rigid designator and description. As you say, some descriptions might count as "revealing the identity", but others certainly wouldn't. (And some rigid designators also wouldn't, a secret code name, for example).

I am simply resting on my own clear intuition that it could be a reasonable, if legalistic, defense that he did not reveal Plame's name. "Naming names" can make a big difference, which is why names are often withheld.

I can see the possibility of the opposite view as well. Certainly it seems reckless handling of potentially secret information, as Timothy Noah argues at http://www.slate.com/id/2122393/

I only reacted because it hardly seems obvious that whether or not Rove referred to Plame by name could not be highly relevant to the legal question of whether a particular statute was violated. On some of the legalities see also Micky Kaus:

Incidentally, it also seems reasonable to me say that (as far as we know now) Rove did not "know who" Valerie Plame was, which was the topic of Boer and Lycan (though I don't know their account).

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at July 11, 2005 04:42 PM

Thanks for the tips, apo! I've done at least the second one.

Anders, I was jokingly taking off from the description/rigid designator distinction. I concede that there might be a statute that was written so that a name had to be named for a crime to be committed, but that would be a pretty silly statute. Anyway, I think the bit Kaus quotes settles it; it's "any information identifying such covert agent," and "Joe Wilson's wife" definitely counts.

(I'm not sure why Kaus thinks it should get Rove off the hook if he trusted the reporters not to make the identity public--I take it Kaus doesn't think it *does*, but he thinks it *should*, if Rove trusted the reporters to be responsible. But the point of security clearances is that people with security clearances are officially trustable, and people without them are not to be trusted with secure information. The point is to have bright-line rules about who can and can't be told. And isn't telling information to a reporter a bad way to keep it secret?)

So if I were Luskin, I'd start hammering on "He didn't know she was covert." Which would still mean he should be fired--before leaking a CIA agent's identity, shouldn't you find out if she's covert?--but might keep him out of jail.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 11, 2005 07:06 PM

OK, Yglesias says what I mean:

It seems that Karl Rove's defense strategy in the Plame leak case is going to be that he said something like "Joe Wilson's wife works for the CIA" rather than "his wife, Valerie Plame, works for the CIA." I have a hard time imagining that will stand up in court unless the people who drafted the relevant law were really, really dumb, but that's outside my area of competence.


(This no-HTML thing is already a huge pain. May rethink.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 11, 2005 07:31 PM

Another statutory hurdle Kaus doesn't mention is that Rove would have to have learned the identity of the covert agent as a result of authorized access to classified information. Not clear if this is the case. Even if Rove would have been authorized to receive this info, he may have learned this particular item from somewhere other than a classified source (raising the question of what his source was, but getting him off the legal hook).

Also both (a) and (b) in the statute (welcome back, HTML!) require knowledge that the US is taking affirmative measures to conceal the agent's identity.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at July 12, 2005 12:39 PM

Anders is probably correct technically, but, but...why is Judith Miller going to jail? And does anyone remember "It depends what "is" is"?

Posted by: Matt's mom at July 12, 2005 02:53 PM

Hmm, I came across the following in a bit of spinning in National Review Online

But Luskin told NRO that Rove is not hiding behind the defense that he did not identify Wilson's wife because he did not specifically use her name. Asked if that argument was too legalistic, Luskin said, "I agree with you. I think it's a detail."
But it seems Rove must still be resting Clinton-wise on this detail to vindicate his cagily phrased public denials as literal truths.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at July 13, 2005 07:20 AM

Matt, wondering if you noticed this cognate post at unfogged. Philosophers of language think alike!

And you might also want to let the folks at Language Log know that you have answered their call.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at July 13, 2005 12:40 PM