On the morning of July 14, 2003, I was reading Bob Novak’s column in The Washington Post. He was doing his best to defend the Bush administration from the red-hot charge that George W. Bush had misled the country during the State of the Union address when he declared that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Months after the speech, this sentence triggered a near-scandal, for it turned out there had been no strong factual basis for the allegation, which was meant to suggest Hussein was close to acquiring nuclear weapons. The White House asserted it had had no reason to be wary about using this piece of information. Then, on July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a piece in The New York Times and publicly revealed that in February 2002 he had been sent to Niger by the CIA to examine the allegation and had reported back there was no evidence to support this claim. Prior to his Times article, Wilson, the last acting U.S. ambassador in Iraq, had been one of the more prominent opponents of the Iraq war. Yet he had not used the information he possessed about Bush’s misuse of the Niger allegation to score points while debating the war. His much-noticed Times op-ed was a blow for the White House, and Republicans and conservatives struck back. One front in that counterattack was the Novak column.
“His wife, Valerie Plame,” Novak wrote, “is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate” the Niger charge. With this passage, Novak blew the cover of Wilson’s wife, who had worked clandestinely for the CIA for years. I immediately called Wilson, whom I had gotten to know over the past months and whom I had recruited to write for The Nation. Somewhat jokingly, I said, “You never told me Valerie was CIA.” He responded, “I still can’t.” As we discussed the Novak column, it became clear to me that this leak–apparently part of an effort to discredit and/or punish Wilson for opposing the White House–had ruined his wife’s career as a clandestine officer, undermined her work in the important field of counterproliferation, and perhaps even endangered her and her contacts. And it might have been against the law. I told Wilson about the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which made it a serious federal crime for a government official to reveal the identity of a covert officer. He and his wife were unaware of the law. The following day, I checked further and concluded that it was possible that White House officials–or “administration sources,” as Novak put it–had indeed broken the law.
On July 16, 2003, I wrote a piece that appeared in this space noting that the Wilsons had been slimed by the Bush administration and that this leak might have harmed national security and violated the 1982 law. It was the first article to report that the leak was a possible White House crime. Few reporters in Washington paid attention to the story, but the posted piece received a tremendous flood of traffic. Not until two months later, when the news broke that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to conduct an investigation, did the Wilson leak story go big-time.