Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fair Game

Part I

Libby kindly said she looked forward to my review of Fair Game. Book reviews are normally summations. This book is not a “normal” book and thus shouldn’t be given a normal review—and I don’t think Libby or anyone here would expect anything else, given the subject matter and the author.

As a spy turned memoirist (Fair Game), Valerie Plame’s case is unique.
She didn’t lose her job from having been “turned” by a foreign agency, she didn’t accidentally or purposely reveal any secrets, and she wasn’t forcibly retired for incompetence. She is the only covert CIA operative (to my knowledge) to have ever had her cover blown by her own government for an article that she didn’t write, that contested a single false claim made by the President (which was just one amongst many) that was published a year after it had served its purpose.

Not only was she forced to retire, she and her husband were smeared and vilified by the White House, by the entire GOP and their loyal political cheerleaders on television and in the press. Even when Scooter Libby was convicted of lying under oath and obstructing justice regarding the investigation into Plame’s “outing”, the White House and right-wing pundits simply used the case as a springboard to maintain their virulent character assassination of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson.

Incredibly—or rather credibly—whilst the administration was perfectly happy to assassinate Plame’s character they were also perfectly happy to have her physically assassinated by Al Qaeda.

Valerie Plame has many reasons to be bitter and to lash out, and with this in mind the requisite pre-publication vetting of her memoir by the CIA must have been colored. On the other hand there must have been many of her colleagues in that organization with a desire to see her story told as fully as possible. The trouble is we never know who actually vets such memoirs, and not surprisingly we rarely learn of the reasons behind omissions and redactions in spy memoirs until decades after the fact.

Given the Bush administration’s unprecedented strategy (“penchant” is too-mild a descriptor) of secrecy, misinformation and falsehood, it is a wonder Plame’s memoir isn’t comprised of the first word “Our”, followed by 300 pages of black lines to finish with the last, “time”. As it is there are redactions throughout, some of which run continuously for a few pages. The publisher notes that a good deal of information deemed “classified” and thus worthy of redaction has been in the public domain for some time, and they very helpfully prove an “Afterword” at the end of the book that fills-in some of the gaps.

I’ve read the first six chapters so far and the redactions aren’t necessarily as annoying as one might think; in fact some of the redactions entice one to employ one’s own analytical skills which is a quite engaging and apropos. Where entire paragraphs are obscured there is nothing to work with, but when only a couple of words here and there are redacted its not that hard to make an educated guess—indeed such instances make the censorship somewhat self-defeating.

For instance, Chapter Two is titled [------] Tour and describes Plame’s first overseas assignment.
Note: I’m approximating the length of the CIA’s redactions here.

Plame mentions that she’d been to Europe several times with her parents, listing England, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, France, and Italy, though she doesn’t mention her age at the time of these visits. The chapter begins with her describing sitting at a sidewalk café having a type of espresso with cream—the ‘trade’ name of which is redacted. It’s evening, it’s still hot, and the locals all smoke like chimneys. She also mentions the presence of an easily accessible US air base which would have to be relatively close to the coast.

Page 31--"I was relieved when the European Division picked me up and promptly assigned [-------------- ]. All that stood between me and my new career was [-----------------] language training."

Reading this I figured the location had to be Mediterranean: France, Italy, Greece, Turkey seemed immediate candidates. Plame says she has no talent for languages and found learning hard. IMHO French is not that difficult but Italian is trickier, so maybe it was Italy (which was also where the forged Niger docs came from), or Greece or Turkey. She also mentions that being blond made her stand out a bit so that would still make Italy, Greece or Turkey likely.

Page 31--"Our teacher [-------------] had been a resistance fighter [-------] during WWII and was rightfully very proud of his service and [-------] ancestry."

That narrowed it down for me to Italy or Greece. Both resistances have been described in English as “partisan” which is a bit too long for the first redaction space, so I assume it must be a an indigenous word. I thought the second redacted word might then be “Greek” or “Roman”.

Page 31--"He would rattle off a saying [-------]. Glaring at me and my two classmates for our stupidity he would finally deign to give us the translation. “It means the goat’s hair needs a fine tooth comb.”

Goats. Goat cheese. Feta. Greece. She was probably in Athens (Italy was now my second choice) .

At that point I turned to the “Afterword”. Plame was indeed in Athens. Without doing any research (or peeking) I’d pretty-much figured it out, based on the information provided and general knowledge. So what was the damn point of those redactions?

More to the point of course, is why the administration didn’t apply even such weak and misguidedly pedantic standards of secrecy to the public identification of a vital NOC, Valerie Plame, in the first place? For her book to be censored in this way clearly has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with political need. The “rules” being applied to Plame’s memoir are obviously arbitrary and foolish and present another insult to Plame’s demonstrable professionalism and yet another example of this administration’s megalomaniacal need and desire to control information and crush dissent—no matter how reasoned or even harmless it may appear to be.

The next chapter is about The Trip to Niger. Of its approximately ten pages, two are essentially wholly redacted and the remaining redactions make up more than one further page.

I’m not going to peek at the relevant “Afterword” sections until I’ve read through several more chapters—to do otherwise would be to spoil the entire process. My first attempt at sleuthing turned out quite well I think (I know you only have my word for it). It will be interesting to see, again with just acquired knowledge and the information given rather than targeted research or looking at the ‘cheat-sheet’, whether I can determine any other “secrets”.

Two proverbs come to mind “Knowledge is power” and “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. This administration’s treatment of Valerie Plame (and the public) demonstrates how true these well worn-phrases are.

Trying to figure out what is being withheld from us is "fair game".

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