Of all the silly excuses for not taking the Plame scandal seriously, the prize for the silliest goes (against some mighty stiff competition) to the idea [*] that because some cocktail-party chatterer in Washington claims to have known for years that Joseph Wilson’s wife Valerie worked at Langley, no harm was done by publishing a connection between the name “Valerie Plame” and the initials “CIA,” first Robert Novak’s column then in Time magazine.
The orchestral version of this silly symphony adds what is supposed to be the crushing detail: Wilson’s on-line bio mentions that “he is married to the former Valerie Plame.” [*] (Donald Luskin likes this one, too. ) In a slightly different version, Wilson’s acceptance of the mission to Niger was enough all by itself to “burn” his wife’s cover, so whatever damage was done was really his fault. [*]
Now I don’t have any information whatever about any of this except what’s been in print or on the Web. But the whole thing seems a lot less confusing to me than it does to people who perhaps would prefer staying confused to facing up to the villainy done by people close to the President they admire and support.
Why might Valerie Plame Wilson have worked abroad undercover under her true name, rather than a workname? Perhaps because her cover (reportedly as an energy consultant) was bolstered by facts (such as advanced degrees or work experience) that were true about Valerie Plame and couldn’t easily be transferred to another identity. (That doesn’t imply that she never used a different workname, only that sometimes she was “Valerie Plame” in the field.)
[It’s not unusual for CIA folks to have overt and covert names, both used professionally: I remember my intense puzzlement during my days at the Justice Department when someone I knew as a Langley analyst working on drug-related money-laundering let me read one of his work products (published in a limited, numbered edition of 40 copies) and the name on the title page wasn’t the name I knew him by. I assumed that his boss had stolen credit for his work, and found it hard to understand why he wasn’t peeved. Then he smiled a little bit, and I caught on.]
So: Now energy consultant Valerie Plame marries Ambassador Joseph Wilson. That probably rates an entry on the New York Times social page. It certainly rates a line in his Who’s Who entry and his c.v., and it would be very odd indeed — undesirably attention-catching — to exclude the bride’s maiden name from the newspaper announcement, the Who’s Who, or the bio. “Mr. Wilson is married to a woman named Valerie, whose maiden name is available only on a need-to-know basis.” And of course the people who knew Valerie Plame before her marriage had to know that she was now Ms. Wilson, and would be very puzzled to see a reference to Amb. Wilson’s marriage to “the former Valerie Chojnowski.” There simply wouldn’t have been any alternative to the truth.
(It appears that she has taken her husband’s name, professionally as well as socially, for domestic consumption; from the fact that the leaked story metioned “Valerie Plame,” we can guess that she still uses that as a workname, which doesn’t say anything about whether she still travels for the firm.)
That an energy consultant is married to a diplomat doesn’t, in general, imply that she is actually a spy. So her marrying Wilson, and having “Valerie Plame” appear in Wilson’s bio, wouldn’t excite any particular interest about Valerie Plame’s true role in places where such interest would be unhealthy for her and her assets. Any attempt at concealment, by contrast, would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Master Kung said, “Nothing is more evident than that which is hidden.”
And neither would there be anything to excite suspicion in the fact that the diplomat, a former charge d’affaires in Baghdad, ambassador to a French West African country, and Assistant NSC Director for Africa, was sent on an overt information-gathering mission involving dealings between Iraq and a country in French West Africa. He was a natural for the job. So the claim that Wilson’s mission blew Plame’s cover is pure gibberish.
Now if you assume, as the people who organized this sliming raid wanted you — and still want you — to assume, that someone with Wilson’s resume was obviously unqualified for the mission, then a very alert foreign counterintelligence service might say, “Hmmm…who does this nobody know at the CIA that he gets chosen for a mission so clearly above his pay grade?” But there is absolutely no basis for that assumption other than the wish of Bush’s defenders to discredit what Wilson found, or rather did not find, in Niger.
So, as of the day before the Novak story broke, there was nada, zippo, zilch on the publicly available record linking Valerie Plame Wilson, wife of the retired ambassador, or Valerie Plame, energy consultant, to the CIA. And that’s what the CIA reported to Justice: absent the leak, the media could not have guessed her identify. Which is why this story just moved to the front page.
Once her name was mentioned as the name of a CIA official, though, it would immediately occur to the counterintelligence bureaus of countries where Plame had traveled that any of their nationals with information about WMD acquisition who had spent time talking to “energy consultant” Valerie Plame, or to anyone working for the same “energy consulting firm,” ought to be brought in and asked some questions, perhaps with a little physical encouragement to be responsive if such encouragement proved necessary.
The significance of using the name “Valerie Plame” in the leak wasn’t that it did extra damage; the damage was done simply by identifying Joseph Wilson’s wife as a CIA employee. The significance of using “Valerie Plame” is that it would have been used by only two sorts of people: her old friends and acquaintances from before her marriage, and people who had heard of her in the context of the covert side of her work. (Again, I’m accepting here the report that she didn’t use the name “Plame” in her ordinary office work at Langley.)
That makes it less likely that the leak was a semi-innocent one, and more likely that whoever revealed it to the press, and especially whoever revealed it to the person who revealed it to the press, knew full well that it wasn’t supposed to get out.
I’m sorry to have wasted your time (and mine) on a matter you probably regarded from the beginning as transparently obvious. But the Spin Machine is good at setting these cockamamie theories up, and then bragging that no one has been able to knock them down.
Update: Atrios has more, with links.