Thursday, October 02, 2003


What Caused Wilsongate? Some Thoughts About Institutional Incentives

What caused the Wilson scandal, and why did the story break into the mainstream press when it did? We can start to answer these questions by thinking in terms of institutions rather than individuals. The institutions are the Bush Administration, the CIA, and the mainstream press.

Begin first with the Bush Administration’s attempt to divert blame. Administration officials originally claimed that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and likely nuclear capabilities fully supported their decision to go to war. Later, when no WMD’s were uncovered, they argued either that their decisions were reasonable extrapolations from available intelligence, or failing that, that there was an intelligence failure; i.e., that the CIA had not done its job correctly.

The latter claim cast aspersions on the professionalism of the CIA. The CIA resented the Bush Administration’s attempt to use them as a scapegoat. But after Wilson wrote his op-ed on July 9th, responding to insinuations of CIA incompetence, senior members of the Bush Administration went one step further. They leaked information about Wilson’s wife’s identity as a CIA operative. The evident purpose of this was to say, both to Wilson, and to anyone who might have similar ideas in the future: “Screw with us and we will screw with you.”

At this point, however, the Bush Administration stepped over the line, at least from the CIA’s perspective. It was bad enough that the Administration attempted to impugn their professionalism and shift the blame to them. But now Administration officials had outed a CIA operative in response to criticism, partly as payback and partly as a warning. As a result, the CIA has struck back by requesting that the Justice Department investigate the leak.

Two questions:

Why did the CIA take so long to respond, from July 22d, when Novak’s story was published, to the end of September?

Why did the mainstream press take so long to take up this story?

The answers to both these questions concern institutional incentives.

When Novak’s story was first published, several bloggers complained vigorously about the administration’s leak, but the mainstream press paid very little attention (and at that point Novak himself obviously believed that the Administration had done nothing very seriously wrong). Why did the press hesitate? To answer this question we have to recognize the institutional incentives of the Washington press. Reporters do not like to disclose their sources. The more important a story becomes, the greater the chance that reporters will be called to testify before a grand jury, because, obviously, they know who leaked the story to them. Given their professional norms, the reporters will then refuse to disclose their sources, and the press will look bad for breaking the story and then refusing to assist with ascertaining the truth. That is, if the matter goes to the grand jury, there is a danger that the press itself will become the story, not the miscreants who leaked the information to the press.

All of this explains why, in the run of the mill story about leaks, the press is less than interested. The mainstream press has no incentive to make a big deal about leaks *to the press itself.* For this reason, it is often said that investigations about leaks in Washington tend to go nowhere. But they go nowhere not because the information is not readily available– it is readily available, the reporters have it! They go nowhere because reporters don’t want to testify about their sources, and government officials are usually not willing to take the political heat for putting them in jail if they don’t testify. (The institutional calculus is somewhat different with respect to local reporters in jurisdictions outside of the Beltway, so you actually do see the occasional reporter jailed for refusal to testify). Put another way, the ongoing (some would say incestuous) relationship between national politicians and the Washington press corps leads to the received wisdom that the source of leaks cannot be uncovered. And it also led to the mainstream press not picking up on the story for over two months after the Novak column originally appeared.

The CIA’s request to the Justice Department, however, changed the equation considerably. Once the CIA started to push back at the Bush Administration in order to defend its reputation and its institutional prerogatives, it produced a story that could not be buried. The story had to be covered, even though the idea of putting mainstream reporters in harm’s way makes the institutional press quite nervous. The Bush Administration, recognizing the natural hesitancy of the mainstream press to push hard on stories where the press’s own interests are involved, has wanted this to be a story about leaks, which are a common enough occurrence in Washington, and which are governed by the unspoken rules between politicians and the Washington press corps. Thus, if this remains a story about leaks, then it will go nowhere.
The CIA’s decision to complain, on the other hand, suggests that to the CIA, at least, this is a story about the Administration trying to push the CIA around, and interfere with its professional status and its prerogatives. For that reason, if the Administration pushes the CIA, the CIA is going to push back. From the CIA’s standpoint, the Bush Administration (and all future administrations) must be shown that if it screws with the CIA, the CIA will screw with them. Karl Rove may think that he is Don Corleone, and that he can put the metaphorical equivalent of a horse’s head in Joseph Wilson’s bed, but two can play at that game. And, given the fact that the CIA probably has enough evidence in its files to undermine any sitting president, it is probably not a good idea for the Bush Administration– or any administration for that matter-- to use the CIA as a whipping boy.

It is likely that Valerie Plame and her immediate superiors wanted to push back at the Administration almost immediately after she was outed. But the CIA bureaucracy may have resisted for some time, hoping that the press would pick up the story. The mainstream press did not do so, for the institutional reasons I have just recounted, and therefore at some point the CIA felt it necessary to force matters into the open by requesting an investigation from the Justice Department.

Many people, I suspect, will want to see this story as about political machinations between Democrats and Republicans. Surely there is plenty of that going on. But if one focuses only on the partisan aspects of the story, one will miss the much more interesting and intricate conflicts between institutions that have set these events in motion.

UPDATE: Jerry Newmark writes that the CIA actually did make an informal request for an investigation within a week of Novak's story. An account appears here. He argues that the CIA only made a formal request (thus bringning on press scrutiny and, possibly, a full criminal investigation) only after the White House and the Justice Department failed to respond to its informal suggestion:

Along the lines you've presented, I've got a slightly different take on why
it took so long for the CIA to submit a formal request (and publicize it in
a way that is unusual for them). The CIA did make an informal request for a
Justice Department review shortly after the Novak article was published.
This may be seen as message to the White House that while the CIA wanted
someone's head to roll, they would rather not pursue a criminal
investigation. There are good institutional reasons for this - a formal
investigation would necessarily involve having the FBI investigate CIA as
well as White House personnel and the animosity between the CIA and FBI is
well known - as well as practical concerns about being able to control the
scope of an investigation once it has begun. Only after it was clear that
Justice and the White House were not going to act on their own accord did
the CIA raise the stakes.


AgaricPro merupakan Obat Stroke produk BestAgaric, AgaricPro berguna sebagai Obat Darah Tinggi, obat maag, Obat Hernia, Obat Stroke, Obat Darah Tinggi, AgariPro merupakan Obat Herbal sebagai Solusi Masalah Kesehatan Anda, AgaricPro Obat Herbal Alami Paling Ampuh healthylife indonesia seperti Penyakit Wanita, Obat Keputihan Crystal X, Trica Jus, Nes V semuanya dapat didapatkan di Tasik Store

One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.
Agen Judi Online Terpercaya

Post a Comment

Older Posts
Newer Posts