OUTING PLAME….Two years ago, when the Valerie Plame affair first surfaced, the conservative response was largely one of yawning silence. Still, the conservatives who did speak up mostly conceded that, yes, if someone in the White House exposed the identity of a CIA agent, it was a bad thing to do. And if it was done as part of a political campaign to discredit a critic, it was an especially bad thing to do.

During the past month, however, the growing evidence that someone in the White House really did expose Plame has caused more than a bit of panic ? and a change of heart. We’ve already heard from Fox’s John Gibson, who not only thinks it was OK to expose the identity of a covert CIA agent to the press, but apparently thinks it was a positive social good. Valerie Plame “should have been outed by somebody,” he said, and Karl Rove deserves a medal for being the only guy with the guts to do it.

Since then, the proposition that it wasn’t a big deal even if the White House did out Plame, has become a routine talking point. Over at QandO, Jon Henke nicely summarizes the now standard conservative position:

If a White House official 1) consciously knew that Valerie Plame was a covert agent 2) whose identity ought to have been protected, and 3) that White House official initiated a leak of her name to the press 4) in order to disclose her identity, then he ought to be removed from his position and prosecuted.

In other words, if Rove’s failure was merely that he didn’t care enough to check on Plame’s status, then he did nothing wrong. If he knew she was covert but didn’t realize that the CIA prefers its covert agents to stay covert, then he did nothing wrong. If he knew that too, but outed Plame in a conversation that someone else initiated, then he did nothing wrong. And finally, even if he knew all those things, but his motivation was merely to score points against Joe Wilson, rather than to ruin Valerie Plame’s career, then he did nothing wrong. These criteria essentially justify in advance virtually anything that Rove might plausibly have done.

Nearly every conservative blog now follows this line. Plame wasn’t really all that covert. Rove was merely engaged in a longrunning turf battle with the CIA. Hell, somebody had to smear Joe Wilson. The guy had it coming. If that required the exposure of Plame, her front company, and potentially every source she’s ever worked with, that’s the way it goes. After all, we don’t know for sure that anything bad came of this, do we?

The moral bankruptcy at the core of this argument is truly stunning, but this weekend it got even worse. Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, announced that he “intends to preside over hearings on the intelligence community’s use of covert protections for CIA agents and others involved in secret activities.”

Let that sink in. Does it sound like Roberts is concerned about CIA agents being exposed in the press? Of course not. Instead, Roberts is preemptively defending Rove by implying that perhaps the real problem is that the CIA overuses clandestine cover for its agents. The gall is almost beyond belief, especially coming from the party that keeps telling us they’re the ones who are serious about national security.

Until Patrick Fitzgerald finishes his investigation, we won’t know everything that really happened here. In fact, we still might not know even then. But we’ve learned one thing already: when presented with even a hint of evidence that someone on their team has treated national security with cavalier disdain, conservative concern with national security gets thrown overboard without a second thought. Dealing with Plamegate as a factual matter ? did someone in the White House expose Valerie Plame’s identity to reporters? ? is no longer acceptable, because, after all, when facts are involved, there’s a chance they can turn against you.

Instead, for most conservatives, Plamegate has now turned into the public relations task of convincing the public that even if Rove did out Plame, outing a covert CIA agent is a perfectly acceptable thing for a White House aide to do.

Welcome to the modern Republican Party.

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