The Plame Affair

THE PARTISAN CONTROVERSY over the outing of Valerie Plame, the once-covert CIA analyst and wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, seems destined to go unresolved. Although the actions of two senior administration officials may be felonious, a city that lives on leaked information seems unlikely to produce the identity of either official involved in the leak. However, the real story in this affair is the media’s overblown coverage and the Left’s hypocritical outrage.

The media regularly presents the two “senior administration officials” who exposed Plame’s CIA employment to Robert Novak in July as felons. However, as Jack Shafer has pointed out on Slate, it’s not clear any law has been broken. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, the person disclosing the covert agent’s identity must have “authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent” and must “intentionally” disclose it. Whether this official had authorized or unauthorized knowledge of Ms. Plame’s status is not clear. If the official’s knowledge was “unauthorized,” he/she apparently could not be prosecuted.

To complicate matters, Plame may not fall under the technical legal definition of a “covert” officer.

Further, the official must have “intentionally” exposed Plame. According to Robert Novak’s account of his interview, neither officer appeared to have premeditated the exposé. Novak recounted the event:

During a long conversation with a senior administration official, I asked why Wilson was assigned the mission to Niger. He said Wilson had been sent by the CIA’s counterproliferation section at the suggestion of one of its employees, his wife. It was an offhand revelation from this official, who is no partisan gunslinger. When I called another official for confirmation, he said: “Oh, you know about it.”

In addition to one “offhand” remark, the second official reacted on the spur of the moment, without premeditation or intent. Thus, it would seem the officials were innocent of wrongdoing under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Allegations have since surfaced that the same, nameless “senior administration officials” had tried to plant Plame’s name and occupation with a half-dozen other reporters without success, before unloading the story on Novak. Novak denies the charge. Perhaps more tellingly, since this story surfaced – citing a third nameless “senior administration official” as its source – no reporter has come forward to corroborate this charge. Does it seem plausible that the average glory-seeking, leftist reporter approached by top White House brass would remain silent, refusing to 1) accept the attendant publicity that would go with making a breakthrough story; and 2) indict the Bush administration as a gang of liars? Much less that six reporters would remain silent for nearly four months? The thought strains credulity.

The 16 Words Connection

The media has also claimed the inclusion of Plame’s name and CIA status “added nothing” to Robert Novak’s column of July 14, which sought an explanation why the CIA sent her husband to Niger in the first place.

The Plame controversy actually had its genesis with the “16 words controversy.” In early 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney had heard questions raised about reports that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium in Niger. He asked the CIA to look into the matter, and the Agency dispatched former Ambassador Joe Wilson to look into matters. Wilson carried out his tough interrogation over “eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people” – at poolside, on occasion – before inexplicably finding nothing. In July, the story broke that a fact-finding investigation on Niger’s yellowcake concluded that Saddam never tried to purchase uranium there. Wilson promptly confessed he was the diplomat who undertook this “investigation.” Thus was President Bush’s State of the Union Address derided as “lies” by the Left – on the basis of Wilson’s African vacation.

Wilson was an odd choice, indeed. He has keynoted before the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), which opposed the Iraqi liberation, the sanctions against Saddam, and even the no-fly zones protecting Saddam’s former victims. Wilson is an “adjunct fellow” at the Saudi-funded Middle East Institute. His flaming leftist shilling has graced the pages of Nation, where he wrote, “The new imperialists will not rest until governments that ape our worldview are implanted throughout the region.” Finally, he gave the maximum campaign contribution allowed by law to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. (Plame gave $1,000 herself.) Indeed, Wilson worked for Gore in the 1980s. In recent years, he has supported (and formally endorsed) Sen. John Kerry.

Bob Novak asked the predictable question: Why was Wilson, a career diplomat with no CIA background, no investigative experience, and a political axe to grind against George W. Bush, sent on such a sensitive mission? (Perhaps Novak should have asked why authorities accepted Wilson’s incompetent trip as the final word, particularly when British intelligence still claims the story is accurate.)

According to his account, Novak asked a “senior administration official” about this seeming incoherence, when the official blurted out that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was employed by the CIA and suggested Wilson for the trip. Before reporting her name, he asked CIA officials what effect the revelation would have, and the CIA reportedly gave him a “weak” response, stating only that such an exposure might make traveling abroad somewhat awkward for her. He appears to have acted in good faith in publishing the connection. The media’s contention that Valerie Plame’s name, relationship, and status “added nothing” to Novak’s story is lunacy: it explains why an unqualified leftist was placed in a position that can (and has) undermined the credibility of an administration he despises, in the middle of a war.

Agent? Si; Secret? No!

Moreover, as Novak notes, Plame’s “covert” status “was not much of a secret.” The incidentals were not secret: Her name appears in Joseph Wilson’s “Who’s Who in America” entry. Moreover, when she donated $1,000 to Al Gore, she did so under her married name, listing a private CIA front group as her “employer.”

More importantly, though, her CIA employment was no secret. Wilson himself disclosed that his wife let her cover slip early in their dating life. Presumably Ms. Plame has dated others, whom she also informed of her dreadfully well-guarded, super-duper-secret status in exchange for, say, an evening at the Ice Capades. Although she has a desk job investigating those who sell WMDs to terrorists (and is not a field “operative” as some misunderstood Novak to imply), she had knowledge of genuine field agents in hostile lands. Thus, her loose-lipped dating-and-mating habits could have endangered those within her orbit. Her blatant disregard of CIA secrecy undermined her own job. It seems she, not Bob Novak, was the graver danger to national security.

For that matter, Novak was not the only prominent conservative columnist to know of Plame’s employment. Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has written that by early July, when Wilson first threw his tantrums about his Niger expedition, May had heard of Plame’s status “from someone who formerly worked in the government and he mentioned it in an offhanded manner, leading me to infer it was something that insiders were well aware of.” Novak seems right on target when he writes, “It was well known around Washington that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA.”  Had Novak not reported her employment, this ticking time bomb was still waiting to go off.

This hardly excuses the blasé attitude of two senior administration officials toward the identity of covert CIA analysts. Regardless of her own attitude toward her covert status and the fact that she is a desk jockey rather than a field guerrilla, the CIA certifies that it will uphold its part of the bargain to maintain the anonymity of its undercover officers. Leaking any covert CIA agent’s name to the press should be intolerable, and the perpetrators, if found, should be punished. In fact everyone from President Bush to Attorney General Ashcroft shares this consensus.

Since the story broke, Wilson has played it for all its worth, publicly demanding the arrest of Karl Rove (though he could produce no proof that Rove was one of Novak’s unnamed sources and later withdrew his comment). Leaning upon his own infallibility, Wilson has insisted the Bush administration is lying about yellowcake, hardly a move that will inspire confidence in a wartime leader (and, as noted above, entirely unwarranted). The mass media has proven pliable, demanding George Bush “do more” in his investigation.Yet it seems there is precious little Bush can do to find the leaks (which he is eager to do, after the embarrassment they have caused him).

What Can Be Done?

What more can George W. Bush do to find the leak? He could administer polygraph tests to all “senior administration officials” in the hopes of finding the perpetrator. Naturally, the weakness of this tactic is that the “lie detector test” only measures the degree of one’s nervous reaction to the interrogator’s questions. In other words, it measures how well one takes a test; innocents have failed them and perpetrators have passed them. It is unlikely to make a foolproof dragnet for errant political appointees.

He could take the advice of former House Judiciary Committee chief counsel Jerome Zeifman and indict Robert Novak. As Zeifman points out, referencing the Supreme Court’s 1972 Branzburg decision: “The issue in these cases is whether requiring newsmen to appear and testify abridges the freedom of speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment. We hold that it does not.” Bush could legally demand Novak produce the leaker’s name under oath. The flaw? Although the surprising may happen, it seems unlikely Robert Novak will answer. Journalists protect confidential source identities the way priests keep the secrets of the confessional; both believe silence is their sacred obligation. The result could be nothing more a jailed Novak.

The president could as easily indict the reporter who broke the story that six reporters had passed on reporting this leak, as well. Clearly, the reporter is either in possession of the identities of the officials in question or is one step removed.

Or he could indict every senior administration official and force them to deny under oath (or have them sign an affidavit to the effect) that he/she was the source of Valerie Plame’s outing. Bush should make clear that anyone taking the Fifth Amendment in court would be fired on the spot.

However, even if all the officials are forced to testify under oath, it may as likely produce nothing save two undetected perjurers.

The fact is, the sources may remain buried, like Deep Throat, under the eternal sands of obscurity. At least Bob Woodward has promised to reveal Deep Throat’s identity once the informant has passed away; we must awkwardly assume these officials will outlive Robert Novak. Hence, they may never be exposed, much less face legal action for their behavior (provided charges even apply).

The Democratic Party, which has never seen a Republican administration that didn’t need a special prosecutor, is chirping its familiar message. It is not one that should be accepted, as the futility of special prosecutors generally has demonstrated. Indeed, the Justice Department has already begun widening its investigation by seeking information on officials allegedly involved in discrediting Joseph Wilson in the media after the leak (an unnecessary mission if ever there were one). Apparently Justice believes these officials must be identical with the leakers. Handed over to an ineffectual, politically motivated special prosecutor, the investigation will doubtlessly veer into Cynthia McKinney territory.

Moreover, all this concern about the sacred anonymity of covert agents (which Plame never had in the first place) seems peculiarly out of place coming from the same party that reveled in the exposes of Frank Church, Philip Agee, and the Pentagon Papers. Unlike Plame, these leaks genuinely led to danger, and even death, for those exposed. Plame will simply go on the lecture circuit, write her memoirs, and take her place alongside Scott Ritter and Alger Hiss in the leftist martyrology.

We trust the Justice Department to conduct a thorough and professional investigation into the source of leaks. Nothing less than the confidentiality of this nation’s covert CIA agents is at stake. Will the Justice Department ever find the people responsible for these leaks? Doubtful. The prognosis is grim, but just because something is difficult does not mean it is not worth doing.

Perhaps they should also investigate whether Plame’s actions violate any federal law, and prosecute all violations to the fullest extent of the law. We do not know that the White House leaks have endangered anyone yet; I wonder what we would find in Ms. Plame’s history.

This story originally appeared as the lead story on Friday, November 7, 2003, on FrontPage Magazine.