OPEN SEASON ON THE CIA….On Tuesday I argued that the latest Republican PR strategy in the Plamegate affair is to plant seeds suggesting that even if Karl Rove did expose the identity of a covert CIA agent, perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing to do after all. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Pat Roberts appeared to be taking the lead in this strategy by ominously opening hearings on the “use of covert protections for CIA agents” ? hearings that I suspect are designed mainly to ridicule the CIA for overusing the label “covert” as it pertains to, say, agents like Valerie Plame.

In response, Pejman Yousefzadeh touchingly defended his fellow Republican’s honor, claiming that perhaps Roberts wanted nothing more than to augment the use of covert protection for CIA operatives. D’oh! How could I have missed that obvious interpretation? The fact that Roberts has suddenly become interested in this subject at the exact same time that Karl Rove has been accused of exposing an undercover agent is, I guess, just a coincidence. In fact, perhaps Karl is in for a stern talking to from the senator from Kansas?

Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet the corner office on it. In fact, at about the same time I was writing my post, Christopher Hitchens was ? in another of those surprising coincidences ? writing an entire column contending that….we should repeal the law that makes it illegal to expose the identity of a CIA operative!

Now, perhaps this law is indeed a bad idea. But why the sudden interest after 23 years on the books? Hitchens, who seems increasingly unable to construct actual arguments these days, suggests that the law is unfair to the Pentagon. Attend closely here. The problem, he says, is that the CIA can leak stuff about the military, but if the military tries to leak back they’re breaking the law. How unfair! Clearly this “leak gap,” if I can coin a phrase, needs to be addressed urgently.

And so the meme spreads. Never mind that IIPA, the law in question, is almost certainly irrelevent to the case at hand, since the bar for prosecution under IIPA is extremely high. Never mind that Hitchens & Co. studiously ignore the common sense notion that government officials shouldn’t expose the identity of CIA officials whether it’s actually against the law or not. Never mind that Hitchens knows perfectly well that the White House could have easily defended itself against Joe Wilson’s charges without ever mentioning Valerie Plame, and did so merely to add a little fillip of revenge to their PR campaign. Never mind that Hitchens as much as admits that the real issue here is that conservatives are at war with the CIA. And never mind that Hitchens brazenly lies when he suggests that Iraq really was trying to buy uranium from Niger but the CIA refused to believe it for merely institutional reasons. He’s wrong on both counts: The ISG report makes it clear that Iraq wasn’t trying to buy uranium from abroad, and the SSCI report makes it clear that the CIA did believe Saddam was reconstituting nuclear weapons but just didn’t think the evidence for the African uranium story was very convincing. The CIA may not have been as gung ho for regime change as the Bush White House, but even at that they were still far more hawkish on Iraq’s WMD than they should have been.

But never mind all that. The important thing is that the meme spreads: outing a CIA officer isn’t that big a deal. That way, if it turns out that someone in the White House really did expose Valerie Plame’s identity, the ground will be nicely prepared to claim that it’s just a tempest in a teapot.

Alternatively, maybe it’s just a coincidence that so many conservatives are making this surprisingly unconservative argument at just this moment in time. Just a coincidence.