String of posts starts here.
It’s official: the Bush Administration deliberately blew the cover of a secret agent who had been gathering information on weapons of mass destruction, endangering the lives of her sources and damaging our ability to collect crucial intelligence. (And, not incidentally, committing a very serious crime.) The apparent motive: revenge on Joseph Wilson, her husband, for going public with the story of his mission to Niger, which blew a hole in the Yellowcake Road story.
Joseph Wilson, who had previously been slightly cagy about the role of his wife, Valerie Plame, has now publicly charged on NBC that the Administration deliberately blew his wife’s cover as an a act of intimidation. In doing so, he implicitly confirms that she was in fact a covert agent.(*)
And Newsday (*) has found CIA sources to confirm that Plame was undercover. Those same sources deny deny that she had any role in recruiting her husband. (Full text below.)
Tom Maguire, the one right-blogger who has bothered to notice the story, and who provides a useful timeline with links, (*) still seems to think there’s some sort of doubt that this goes all the way to the White House, but I can’t figure out why.
If two senior Administration officials told Novak that Plame had a role in recruiting Wilson for a CIA mission, while her role with the CIA was supposed to be covert, then they blew her cover, whether or not they said in so many words “Jennifer Plame is a CIA agent.” Obviously random energy consultants don’t recruit their spouses, or anyone else, for CIA intelligence-gathering missions. The fact that reporters, once they had the lead, got people at the CIA to confirm Plame’s status doesn’t reflect much credit on the CIA, but I don’t see what comfort it offers the Bush White House.
Note that NBC ignores, and Newsday buries, the question about the potential legal liability of the two senior administration officials.
One of Kevin Drum’s commenters provides the relevant text from the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, 50 U.S.C. 421:
“Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent’s intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”
An email correspondent suggests that the senior administration officials had planted a false story about Plame’s having recruited her husband, as a way of outing her without breaking the law. But the language of the statute, “any information identifying such agent” — seems to have plugged any such loophole.
Having said that the most likely situation was that Corn and Novak had it right and Plame was a covert CIA operative, I shouldn’t now be surprised to find it true. But in fact I am. I’m stunned. Yes, this was the least unlikely explanation for a bizarre set of facts. But it’s still too weird for words.
One more thing to note: The White House has been on notice for a week that this might come up. If they can’t do any better for a response a non-denial denial from Scott McClellan (see below, and see Elisabeth Risa (*) for more text and some useful analysis) and a referral to the NSC where no one is answering the phone, they must not have anything to say in their own defense. (McClellan is virtually daring people to identify the two leakers. Well, a special prosecutor with a grand jury could do the job pretty quickly, I bet.) And the NSC referral raises the question: is one of the “senior administration officials” named “Joseph” for example? Or perhaps “Rice.”
As soon I read about this on Kevin Drum’s blog, I thought it might be a major scandal. Now I’m sure of it. Jay Rockefeller, Diane Feinstein, and Richard Durbin are saying the right things. (*) This isn’t going away.
Here’s the relevant chunk of the Scott McClellan briefing. Thanks to Tom Maguire for spotting it.
Q The Robert Novak column last week identified the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a CIA operative who was working on WMD issues. Novak said that identification is based on information given to him by two administration sources. That column has now given rise to accusations that the administration deliberatively blew the cover of an undercover CIA operative, and in so doing, violated a federal law that prohibits revealing the identity of undercover CIA operatives. Can you respond to that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you for bringing that up. That is not the way this President or this White House operates. And there is absolutely no information that has come to my attention or that I have seen that suggests that there is any truth to that suggestion. And, certainly, no one in this White House would have given authority to take such a step.
Q So you’re saying —
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m saying that that is not the way that this President or this White House operates, and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest there’s any truth to it.
Q Are you saying Novak was wrong in saying that it was two administration sources who were the source for —
MR. McCLELLAN: I have no idea who “anonymous” is. I often wish —
Q It’s not anonymous. He says senior administration officials.
MR. McCLELLAN: That would be anonymous.
Q Well, that would be senior administration —
Q Like the guy who briefed us last week?
MR. McCLELLAN: Whether it’s anonymous senior administration officials or just anonymous sources, it’s still anonymous.
Q Is Novak lying? Do you think he’s making it up?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m telling you our position. I’ll let the columnist speak for himself.
Q You’re saying, flatly, it did not happen, nobody —
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m telling you, flatly, that that is not the way this White House operates. I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that there’s any truth to that.
Q That’s different from saying it didn’t happen. Are you saying, absolutely, it did not happen?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m saying no one was certainly given any authority to do anything of that nature. And I’ve seen no evidence to suggest there’s any truth to it. I want to make it very clear, that is simply not the way this White House operates.
Q If it turns out that somebody in the administration did do that —
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m not even going to speculate about it, because I have no knowledge of any truth to that report.
Q What’s the extent of your knowledge? Don’t you want to get some more facts? I mean, how do you know that no one in the administration — Robert Novak has been around for a long —
MR. McCLELLAN: If I could go find “anonymous,” Terry, I would.
Q Does the President support a criminal investigation —
MR. McCLELLAN: Did you have something?
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, Richard.
Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce
July 21, 2003, 9:48 PM EDT
Washington — The identity of an undercover CIA officer whose husband started the Iraq uranium intelligence controversy has been publicly revealed by a conservative Washington columnist citing “two senior administration officials.”
Intelligence officials confirmed to Newsday Monday that Valerie Plame, wife of retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson, works at the agency on weapons of mass destruction issues in an undercover capacity — at least she was undercover until last week when she was named by columnist Robert Novak.
Wilson, while refusing to confirm his wife’s employment, said the release to the press of her relationship to him and even her maiden name was an attempt to intimidate others like him from talking about Bush administration intelligence failures.
“It’s a shot across the bow to these people, that if you talk we’ll take your family and drag them through the mud as well,” he said in an interview.
It was Wilson who started the controversy that has engulfed the Bush administration by writing in the New York Times two weeks ago that he had traveled to Niger last year at the request of the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium there. Though he told the CIA and the State Department there was no basis to the report, the allegation was used anyway by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union speech in January.
Wilson and a retired CIA official said Monday that the “senior administration officials” who named Plame had, if their description of her employment was accurate, violated the law and may have endangered her career and possibly the lives of her contacts in foreign countries. Plame could not be reached for comment.
“When it gets to the point of an administration official acting to do career damage, and possibly actually endanger someone, that’s mean, that’s petty, it’s irresponsible, and it ought to be sanctioned,” said Frank Anderson, former CIA Near East Division chief.
A current intelligence official said that blowing the cover of an undercover officer could affect the officer’s future assignments and put them and everyone they dealt with overseas in the past at risk.
“If what the two senior administration officials said is true,” Wilson said carefully, “they will have compromised an entire career of networks, relationships and operations.” What’s more, it would mean that “this White House has taken an asset out of the” weapons of mass destruction fight, “not to mention putting at risk any contacts she might have had where the services are hostile.”
Deputy White House Press Secretary Claire Buchan referred questions to a National Security Council spokesman who did not return phone calls last night.
“This might be seen as a smear on me and my reputation,” Wilson said, “but what it really is is an attempt to keep anybody else from coming forward” to reveal similar intelligence lapses.
Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information. “I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,” he said. “They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.”
Wilson and others said such a disclosure would be a violation of the law by the officials, not the columnist.
Novak reported that his “two senior administration officials” told him that it was Plame who suggested sending her husband, Wilson, to Niger.
A senior intelligence official confirmed that Plame was a Directorate of Operations undercover officer who worked “alongside” the operations officers who asked her husband to travel to Niger.
But he said she did not recommend her husband to undertake the Niger assignment. “They [the officers who did ask Wilson to check the uranium story] were aware of who she was married to, which is not surprising,” he said. “There are people elsewhere in government who are trying to make her look like she was the one who was cooking this up, for some reason,” he said. “I can’t figure out what it could be.”
“We paid his air fare. But to go to Niger is not exactly a benefit. Most people you’d have to pay big bucks to go there,” the senior intelligence official said. Wilson said he was reimbursed only for expenses.