Pat Roberts, the Kansas Senator who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced this weekend that he'll hold hearings on how the CIA designates and protects undercover officers. Roberts explained to CNN that the "outing" of Valerie Plame makes these issues a "big deal."
But then he contradicted himself. After referencing Plame's "outing," Roberts suggested she wasn't really outed because she wasn't really covert. Got that? In an effort to defend the White House, he trotted out this speculative smear:
"From a common sense standpoint, driving back and forth to work to the C.I.A. headquarters, I don't know if that really qualifies as being, you know, covert."
So Pat Roberts arrogantly believes he can retroactively determine which agents qualify as covert.
If he keeps this up, you can expect his hearings will try to discredit CIA policy on covert officers, as Arianna argued in a recent post.
Why focus on the CIA right now? The approach offers two potential benefits for Republican leak apologists.
First, it helps them claim they are responding to calls for Congressional investigations by holding hearings, even though the hearings aren't about the actual leak. The goal is to blur the distinction between serious oversight hearings and Roberts' speculative CIA-bashing. Some of this week's press coverage already shows that tactic is working.
Second, focusing on CIA policy instead of the White House leak protects the Administration and diverts blame to the CIA.
But this is a risky strategy that could backfire on live television.
On the merits, the public record shows Plame was undercover. That's why the CIA asked for an investigation in the first place. Her undercover status was a prerequisite for the crime in question. As one CIA official explained, if Plame "was not undercover, we would have no reason to file a criminal referral. " And the classified memos detailing Plame's undercover status were marked secret, so Bush officials knew she was undercover.
Now Roberts can try to conduct hours of hearings contradicting those basic facts. But the farce will be obvious to objective observers.
Of course, Roberts has effectively exploited his committee for partisan politics before, like blaming the CIA for the Administration's deceptive use of prewar intelligence. But people eventually rejected that argument, and now most Americans believe the Bush Administration "intentionally misled the American public" before the war. People don't blame the CIA for the Administration's prewar intelligence deceptions, and I don't think they're going to blame the CIA for the Administration's postwar smears.
Strategically, these hearings can backfire by drawing attention back to the White House leak. Televised hearings give Senators a chance to expose more details on Plame's outing and directly confront Roberts' smears. If any Senator on the committee substantively challenges Roberts, it would put the Chairman on the defensive, make news and get people talking about how this leak compromised national security.
Should Roberts be worried? His staff is already concerned the hearings will depart from their partisan script. Two days after the CNN announcement, a Roberts spokesperson strained to remind everyone that Plame was off limits for the hearings, declaring the committee will not examine "specific actions taken by White House aides in connection with the Plame leak."
But it may be too late. When the gavel drops and the cameras go live, Senators from both parties will have to choose between partisan attacks on the CIA and a serious inquiry of undercover outings and twisted intelligence.
The Intelligence Committee's official jurisdiction requires it "provide vigilant legislative oversight" to ensure intelligence activities conform to the "laws of the United States." It doesn't look like Chairman Roberts takes that duty seriously. Soon we'll find out if any of his committee members do.