Bombshell: The Valerie Plame Affair

OK, enough is enough.

How many abuses of power is it going to take before someone calls the President to task? For someone who rode into office on a promise to restore honor to the White House, he’s been looking a lot more like Richard Nixon than George Washington lately. Now there’s new evidence of Nixonian behavior — this time the White House has actually blown the cover of a secret agent looking for weapons of mass destruction, just to get back at one of their political opponents.

Don’t believe me? Search Google for “Valerie Plame“.

See, here’s what happened. Remember Ambassador Joseph Wilson? He’s the fellow who flew to Niger way back when, on the request of the CIA to look into British leads (obtained from Italian sources) indicating that Iraq could have been trying to buy uranium there. Wilson checked it out, concluded the leads were false, and reported such to the government — which meant he was pretty shocked to see the Niger-uranium claim turn up in the President’s State of the Union address. When he said so to the media, the whole flap that some folks are calling “Uraniumgate” began.

The White House has been trying (unsuccessfully) ever since to find a way to discredit Wilson. One approach they tried a few days ago, though, is what brings Valerie Plame into our story. On July 14th, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote a column about the controversy in which he “outed” Plame — who is the wife of Ambassador WIlson — as a covert operative:

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.

So the line the “senior administration officials” fed Novak was that Wilson’s mission was less a serious investigation and more an example of nepotism run wild — that he got the job because his wife recommended him, and for no other reason. But Novak’s CIA sources indicated that wasn’t how it really went down. And with each new fact that comes out about the affair, it seems more and more clear that those CIA sources were the ones telling the truth.

Liberal economist Paul Krugman was the first to call the Administration out for its treatment of Ms. Plame. The conservative journal National Review set out to demolish Krugman’s assertion, but, remarkably, they had to backtrack when their investigation turned up evidence that he was on the mark (and since the name of the column where the verbal origami took place is “Krugman Truth Squad”, you know they’d have blasted him if they could have).

Then, New York Newsday weighed in with their own piece in which they got independent confirmation from their own intelligence sources that Plame was indeed an undercover operative, and that the White House’s allegation that Plame got Wilson the Niger job was bogus:

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….

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.

As the story emerged, one journalist asked White House spokesman Scott McClellan about it flat out, prompting a series of classic non-denial denials from McClellan:

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.

(Note how McClellan never says it didn’t happen, only that “no one was certainly given any authority to do anything of that nature”; and how he won’t say Novak is wrong, only that “that is not the way this White House operates” and “I’ll let the columnist speak for himself”. We haven’t seen verbal parsing this fine since the golden days of Bill Clinton. And it’s worth noting, too, that the Newsday piece quotes Novak on the record as saying that the story came straight from the “senior Administration officials” he originally cited — “I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,” he told Newsday — so it’s hard to see what else he should do to speak for himself, exactly.)

Since then, there’s been a steady trickle of articles confirming and expanding upon the Plame affair, from a variety of sources:

  • The Nation: “[T]he Bush administration has screwed one of its own top-secret operatives in order to punish Wilson or to send a message to others who might challenge it.”
  • CBS News: “The ‘two senior officials’ who blew [Plame’s] cover to Novak probably did something illegal. They certainly did something vile.”
  • The Washington Post: “Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to investigate whether Bush administration officials identified the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson as a clandestine CIA officer, an allegation published on July 14 in a syndicated column by Robert Novak.”
  • Time Magazine: “Has the Bush Administration declared war on a former ambassador who conducted a fact-finding mission to probe possible Iraqi interest in African uranium? Perhaps.”
  • The Hill: “We know that two senior members of the Bush administration intentionally blew the cover of an undercover CIA officer whose job is combating weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation. And their motivation was pure politics. The president should find out who they are, reprimand them or, preferably, fire them. But instead of being outraged, he doesn’t even seem to care.”

So there’s a lot of open questions about this ongoing affair. Who were the “senior administration officials” who outed Plame to Novak? Were they acting as rogue operatives (as McClellan implies), or on someone else’s orders? If they’re rogues, shouldn’t the Administration be trying to ferret out who’d be so unpatriotic as to compromise ongoing intelligence operations involving weapons of mass destruction to further a petty political agenda — and if not, why not? And if they’re operating on someone’s orders — if the White House spin machine is willing to compromise a covert operative (and everybody who ever worked with her, since any contacts and collaborators she’s had will now be under suspicion just by association) to fight a partisan fight — who gave those orders, and how fast can we send them back to whatever hole in the ground they crawled out of?


Carl Parola

January 5, 2004
2:32 pm

If it is an offense to out an undercover official, what is Novak’s liability in this case? He is the “proximate cause” of the revelation. Did he not have a responsibility as a journalist to keep this quiet: nay as a citizen? Of course as the house hack for the right, he did what was expected of him. Why should “journalistic openness” or whatever be invoked to protect this slimeball when his sources at the white house may (and that’s a big may) be held to task?