Last week the White House told a lie. It was a small lie and, given the epic scale of this administration’s mendacity, a trivial one. It just happened to be about me.
On Thursday I interviewed CIA Director Mike Pompeo on a public stage at the Aspen Security Forum. We covered everything from Russian meddling in the U.S. election to the war in Syria and the nuclear deal with Iran. The director also broke some policy ground with a veiled suggestion that the administration might pursue regime change in North Korea.
There was one sour moment. Midway through the interview, Pompeo abruptly slammed The New York Times for publishing the name last month of a senior covert CIA officer, calling the disclosure “unconscionable.” The line was met with audience applause. I said, “You’re talking about Phil Agee,” and then repeated the name. Pompeo replied, “I don’t know that name,” and the interview moved on.
My startled rejoinder was not a reference to the covert CIA officer unmasked by The Times, but rather a fumbled attempt to refer to the law governing such disclosures. Philip Agee, as Pompeo and everyone in the audience knew, was the infamous CIA officer who went rogue in the 1970s, wrote a tell-all memoir, and publicly identified the names of scores of CIA officers, front companies and foreign agents. His disclosures led Congress in 1982 to pass the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, aka the “Anti-Agee Act,” which made it a federal crime to reveal the names of covert agents. Agee died in Havana in 2008.
If I could have a do-over, I would have recalled the name of the law itself, not the man after whom it was informally named. I might have asked Pompeo why the government didn’t just put the law to the constitutional test by suing The Times.
L’esprit de l’escalier: I plead guilty.
What I didn’t do is disclose the name of any covert officer — nor would I have, since I disagree with The Times’ decision to publish it. So it came as a bad surprise when, the following morning, Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, tweeted that I had.
“CIA Dir Pompeo calls out @NYTimes for publishing name of an UNDERCOVER CIA agent,” he wrote on his official Twitter account, adding, “Just as disgraceful? @BretStephensNYT REPEATS name 2x’s!” He also posted a brief clip of the exchange — but muted my voice when I mentioned Agee.
This was nasty, manipulated and false, but it wasn’t necessarily a lie. If Scavino had never heard of Agee, didn’t know the name of the CIA officer whose name was published by The Times and didn’t bother to fact check before tweeting, he might have inferred from my reply that I had indeed done what he alleged. That’s a plausible surmise about a White House where the line between idiocy and malice isn’t always clear.
To give Scavino the benefit of the doubt, I asked the CIA spokesman to set him straight. I also rebutted his claim on Twitter, emailed and left messages with him on his private number, and wrote the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, at his personal email address.
No acknowledgment. No response. The tweet has not been deleted. The CIA has not publicly corrected the record. The White House is knowingly allowing Scavino’s falsehood to stand. That’s called lying — which, as Pompeo might say, is “unconscionable.”
So what’s new, you ask? Well, not much, at least if you’re comfortable with a political dispensation in which a senior White House official can stonewall without compunction and expect everyone else to yawn and shrug. Every administration has a few sulfuric personalities. This one bubbles over and erupts with them, like a fetid geyser at Yellowstone.
Nor is it new that Scavino’s attack is also part of a broader White House effort to demonize The New York Times. Also in Aspen, Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the Special Operations Command, alleged in an interview that an effort to kill the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi failed on account of a leak to “a prominent national newspaper” — no prizes for guessing the paper he had in mind.
The general’s claim was also dubious, at least as far as The Times was concerned. Taken with Pompeo’s outburst and Scavino’s lie, it raises the question of whether normally apolitical figures aren’t being conscripted into Trump’s war on the press. That’s a worrying thought for institutions, like the CIA, that are supposed to remain above the fray to preserve public trust.
Here’s what worries me more: One judges a liar less by the whoppers he tells than by the fibs — by his willingness to live outside the truth even when the advantages of doing so are almost negligible. Scavino’s failure to correct the record on something as minute as my exchange with Pompeo suggests he’ll lie about anything. And this is the guy who stands at the heart of the Trump administration’s social media operation — the most demagogic enterprise of our time.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has already warned Scavino that he violated the 1939 Hatch Act in April by engaging in “prohibited political activity.” If Anthony Scaramucci is serious about cleaning house in his new shop, dismissing Scavino should be a priority. I’ll take it instead of the apology I’m still owed.
■ Bret Stephens won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013. He began working as a columnist at The New York Times in April.