BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week the justice department said it would investigate the leak of a CIA agent's identity to columnist Robert Novak. That agent is Valerie Plame, the wife of former diplomat Joseph Wilson. Last year, he was sent on a mission to Niger to check out the claim that Iraq had been shopping for weapons grade uranium. He found no evidence, and when the president repeated the charge in his State of the Union address, Wilson disputed it in the New York Times. In Congress, partisan arguments raged over whether the White House should appoint a special counsel, an action that a recent poll suggests most Americans support. And on thursday, at least one senior Republican, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, said Attorney General John Ashcroft should consider recusing himself from the case. Joshua Marshall, author of the well-known blog, Talkingpoints.com, has been following the case and the coverage. Josh, welcome to the show.
JOSHUA MARSHALL: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now stories like these that break briefly and then disappear and then come back again in full force are often really proxy stories --they're really about something larger. What's this one about?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: Well I think this story is really quite similar to a number of stories we've seen over the last few months. I think what's happening is that the administration's credibility is slowly being peeled back and eroded over the months, and what's driving that is the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the increasing sense that there wasn't a clear plan for how to prosecute this war, for how to rebuild the country. So, stories that first saw the light of day a few months back, the administration could kind of knock them down by just sort of saying it's not true, it doesn't matter, or whatever, and the administration was popular enough that it could get away with that. As that credibility gets eroded, the standard for sort of how much evidence is necessary to get a story off the ground keeps going down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:On the other hand, to get these stories back on the front page, there usually needs to be some sort of peg. In the case of the dubious connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, there was that poll that suggested 70 percent of the public thought there were connections, even though there was never any evidence to support that. In this case, what was the triggering event that got it on the front page?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: Well, the immediate triggering event was we now know that the CIA apparently, going back two months, was informally trying to get the Justice Department to open an investigation, and the Justice Department was basically dragging its feet. Eventually, the CIA -- and I think we mean George Tenet, actually -- decided to make a formal referral, and probably also to leak news of that to the Washington Post. That really forced the Justice Department's hand. They had to make a decision, and there's really only one decision they could make. So once you have that, it's one thing to have a few quotes by Bob Novak and stuff like that and, and a lot of commentators chattering about it, but once you have the fact that the CIA has said a crime has probably taken place, the Justice Department is moving ahead to find out. Those just create facts that reporters can latch on to, and it, and it just escalates from there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We've been hearing for a long time that there is tension between the CIA and the Pentagon. Would you say that now George Tenet is now entirely off the reservation?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: It's a little unclear how much he was the driving force here, but clearly he could have stopped a lot of this stuff. It's been sort of I guess you might say a cold war, as it were, between the White House, the Pentagon and, and the CIA, and now it's, now it's a hot one. We are now having a lot of ugly stories being churned up by a war between basically the White House, even more specifically the Office of the Vice President, and the CIA that's gone back two years. And this new Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame issue is an outgrowth of the uranium stuff. This is all the same story. It's the same people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's talk about how the story is playing out. Obviously the liberal papers' op-ed pages consider this a very serious story, though Wall Street Journal's op-ed page dismisses it as much ado about nothing and part of a campaign to smear the administration. Any surprises there?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: No. But I think in a lot of cases what makes a scandal a what you might call "stable scandal" where you have, you know, both partisan sides duking it out over it, what you need there is each side to have some arguments that they can make; they don't even have to be good arguments, but, but each side has to sort of settle on an argument that they can unite around. And I think editorial opinion, even amongst a lot of fairly conservative papers has certainly not been unambiguously supportive. I mean I think what it comes down to is: what seems to have happened -- we don't know yet, but there's a lot of signs that it happened --is that a) laws were broken, but the underlying act was also just a fairly despicable act, and that it was done for fairly petty reasons. It's pretty hard to figure out how to spin that. So what you've seen is people talking about Joe Wilson. He's -- he's a bad guy. He's a partisan. The problem is, is that Wilson at this point is fairly irrelevant to what we're talking about. So I think you've seen that kind of go to the wayside.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Do you think the media now have permission that they didn't have before to go after past and present questions raised by the Bush administration? I mean is it a combination of the polls and stronger denunciations perhaps from Congress or from the Democratic candidates' debates. Do you think all this allows them to go where they weren't bold enough to go before?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: I think it's a few things. I think that, that the further we get from 9/11 is just an important part of it. I think there's, there's two other things. The polls are certainly key. Reporters, unfortunately, do pay a lot of at-- I mean not maybe consciously, but it's always there in the backdrop how popular the president is. The other thing, and I think this is where the, the whole uranium flap was -- we may look back on that and say that was a, a, a pivotal event. Credibility and honesty is sort of a unitary thing. You lose it in one place, and you kind of lose it everywhere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so the damage wrought by the exposure of that bogus Niger deal can't be ameliorated no matter how many undercover agents you leak the names of.
JOSHUA MARSHALL: Right. Right. Right. [LAUGHS] I mean as--I think that this is a product of the damage control from that earlier blowup, and, as often happens, the effort to get out in front of these stories leads to further acts that, that, you know, blow up in your face a few months later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh, thank you very much.
JOSHUA MARSHALL: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joshua Marshall is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. He also makes his opinions known daily on the web blog Talkingpointsmemo.com.