The Valerie Plame Wilson affair: summary to date

[A friend asked for a review of the bidding for non-bloggers. Here it is. It omits references to blogs except where the blog itself is a source of fresh information, since the objective is to tell the story rather than to distribute credit. The thread of my posts on the affair, which includes the links to other blogs, starts here.]

Joseph Wilson IV is the former Ambassador to Gabon (and associate director of the NSC for Africa) sent to Niger last year by the CIA to investigate the claim that the Iraqi regime had tried to buy yellowcake there: the claim that showed up as the famous “16 words” in the January State of the Union Address.

Having concluded that there had probably been no such purchase attempt, and having so reported at the time, Wilson kept his silence about his mission until after Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reported in June (*) that “a former ambassador” had gone on the mission. In early July, Wilson wrote the op-ed in the New York Times (*) that launched the story of the missing uranium into major media attention.

Thereafter, the administration, with help from journalistic allies, appears to have launched a coordinated attack on Wilson. (*)

On July 14, Robert Novak’s column (*) carried the assertion that Wilson had been recruited for the mission at the instance of his wife, the former Valerie Plame. That assertion was sourced to “two senior administration officials,” and was accompanied by the unsourced assertion that “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” Neither assertion was central to the story, whose thrust was that the Wilson mission was so minor, and handled at such a low level within the CIA, that it never reached the people around the President who decided what would go into the State of the Union Address.

“Senior official” is generally understood to mean Executive Level II or above: i.e., someone at the rank of at least Deputy Secretary, or someone of equivalent responsibility in the White House. The number of senior administration officials, so defined, who might have been sources for the information Novak reported does not exceed twenty.

David Corn then reported in the Nation (*), and Newsday later confirmed (*), that Valerie Plame Wilson works covertly for the CIA, apparently under cover as an energy analyst for a consulting firm (not yet identified in the press). After some equivocal remarks in which he refused to comment on his wife’s status but said that, if in fact she had been covert, revealing her identity was a security breach comparable to those associated with Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames, Wilson confirmed that she was indeed covert in an interview on the NBC Nightly News.

In addition to putting an end to Valerie Plame Wilson’s operational usefulness, the revelation of her identity poses a substantial, perhaps even mortal, threat to whatever foreign officials might have been supplying here with information about their nations’ attempts to create WMD capacity. That will tend to have a discouraging effect on future agent recruitment efforts. Thus, unlike most violations of security regulations, “outing” Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA officer could well have caused palpable damage to US national security.

Revealing the identity of a covert CIA officer appears to be in violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, codified as 50 U.S.C., Section 421 (a) or (b):

Protection of identities of certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources:

(a) Disclosure of information by persons having or having had access to classified information that identifies covert agent

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 not more than $50,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.

That language would seem to cover revealing Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity, though Representative Rob Simmons (R.-CT), himself a former CIA official, asserted to The Hill (*) that such revelations were against the law only if they formed part of a pattern. Mr. Simmons seems to have confused two different sections of the law: a non-official, such as a journalist, is vulnerable only for a pattern of such activity under 421 (c); but an official who gets the information and leaks it is criminally liable for even a single act under 421 (a) or (b). Rep. Simmons’s eagerness to offer an interpretation that would legalize disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA officer may suggest his concern that some of his political allies had just done so.

Whether Valerie Plame Wilson was a “covert agent” for the purposes of the statute seems to depend on where and when she has been stationed, and on the definition of “service outside the United States.”

Sec. 426

The term “covert agent” means –

(A) a present or retired officer or employee of an intelligence agency or a present or retired member of the Armed Forces assigned to duty with an intelligence agency –

(i) whose identity as such an officer, employee, or member is classified information, and

(ii) who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States;

Whether someone whose duty station was in the U.S. but traveled abroad on intelligence business counts as “serving abroad” isn’t obvious from the text. No one has yet published any information about Valerie Plame Wilson’s postings or travels.

Senator Schumer has written to FBI Director Robert Mueller asking for an investigation. Calls for Congressional investigations have come from, among others, Senators Rockefeller, Durbin, and Daschle. Governor Howard Dean included a pointed question about the affair in a list of 16 questions for the President (*) about WMD-related matters.

Only Newsday among major media outlets has been covering the story consistently. NBC had an interview with Joseph Wilson, and CBS a commentary sharply critical of the Administration. Paul Krugman mentioned the affair in his column. Otherwise, the major print and electronic media have been largely silent, not even covering the Schumer letter or the Dean statement.

Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary, has been asked about the situation in two of his daily briefings (*), and has replied only in generalities:

That is not the way that this White House operates. That’s not the way the President operates. And certainly, I first became aware of those news reports when we were contacted by reporters and the questions were raised. It’s the first I had heard of those. No one would be authorized to do that within this White House. That is simply not the way we operate, and that’s simply not the way the President operates.

McClellan refused to say that he had made, or would make, any inquiry about who might have leaked the information to Novak. This apparent indifference is in sharp contrast with attention paid last year to the possible leakage of information from the Congressional 9-11 inquiry (*). The Intelligence Identities Protection Act requires an annual report the to the Congress, which may make it harder for the Administration to simply ignore the potential scandal. George Tenet has also been silent. The FBI has yet to say whether it will investigate this situation. It has been reported (*) that the CIA is launching an inquiry.

It seems almost certain that Valerie Plame Wilson was an undercover CIA officer and that her identity was revealed by senior officials of the Bush Administration. What seems much more obscure is why that was done. Joseph Wilson has asserted that the motive was to punish him for speaking out in a way that embarrassed the White House and to deter others from doing so. Even granting that as a motive, it seems hard to fathom why senior officials would reveal the identity of an undercover CIA officer, and do so in a way that was likely to be traced back, if not to them personally, at least to the Bush Administration.

One possibility not discussed so far in print is that the senior officials who spoke to Novak knew that Joseph Wilson’s wife was a CIA officer, but not that she was undercover. Given the tensions between the CIA and the White House, such a failure of communication would be inexcusable but not incomprehensible.

The relative obscurity of the story, and in particular the lack of reportage by the New York Times, Washington Post, and the newsmagazines, seems surprising. To date, no one has come up with an innocent explanation of the facts; the administration’s usual defenders are largely giving this story the silent treatment. If there are guilty parties they, in all probability, senior national security officials of the Bush Administration. The lack of any comment from normally very security-minded administration over a serious breach of security lends further support to the interpretation that high officials were involved.

Update The MinuteMan reports that Joseph Wilson continues to equivocate about his wife’s covert status. He also reports that Wilson’s findings from Niger, as Wilson originally described them, were that there had been no actual sale of yellowcake from Niger to Iraq, rather than that there had been no Iraqi attempt to purchase. I think we now know that she was covert, independent of what her husband says. As to what was or wasn’t in his yellowcake report, that’s neither here nor there as far as the apparent crime of blowing a CIA officer’s cover is concerned.

<strong>Second update Wilson names Rove as the culprit. [*]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: