I’m no Bob Novak.
The conservative columnist, it seems, receives different treatment from the CIA than yours truly. After senior administration officials told him in July that former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife was a CIA officer working in the field of counterproliferation–this was the leak that launched the current scandal–he called the CIA for confirmation. According to Novak, a CIA official was “designated to talk” to him. This official, in Novak’s telling, denied that Valerie Wilson (nee Plame) had “inspired” Joseph Wilson’s selection for a mission to Niger to check out allegations that Iraq had been uranium-shopping there. But this CIA person informed Novak that Valerie Wilson had been asked to solicit her husband’s help. The “designated” CIA official, Novak reports, asked that Novak not use Wilson/Plame’s name, saying she probably would not be given another overseas assignment but that exposure could cause “difficulties” if she traveled abroad. Novak claims the official never stated that Wilson’s wife or anyone else would be endangered. So he named her in a July 14 column and damaged her career and aided what might have been a White House attempt to punish or discredit Joseph Wilson–an effort that possibly undermined national security and possibly violated federal law.
Compare this to my experience with the CIA. After I learned from reliable sources the identity of a current National Security Council staffer who once worked with Valerie Wilson at the CIA in weapons counterproliferation, I wondered whether I should make the name of this person public, and I contacted the CIA.
This NSC staffer might–I emphasize, might–play a role in the Wilson leak scandal. I know of no reason to suspect he or she is one of the leakers. (A recent Newsweek story referred to this NSCer, but it did not name the staffer.) But perhaps this individual–whom I was told is a CIA officer assigned to the NSC–mentioned Valerie Wilson’s CIA connection to one or more White House colleagues during the period in which Joseph Wilson was causing the White House discomfort. (Wilson primarily did that by publicly disclosing that the Niger allegation was probably not true and by charging that the White House had reason to be suspicious of the claim.) Consequently, investigators probing the Wilson leak ought to ask this NSC officer–if they have not already done so–whether he or she talked about Valerie Wilson with anyone in the White House? If the Justice Department investigators can figure out how individuals in the White House came to know about Wilson’s wife (if they did), then the gumshoes might be able to find a trail leading to the leakers.
I tried reaching this individual and could not get past the NSC receptionist, who referred me to NSC press spokesman Sean McCormack. He returned my call once, missed me, and then did not return subsequent calls.
I thought it would certainly be newsworthy to point out a White House officer who particularly deserved to be questioned by the Justice Department investigators. But I worried: would doing so out another CIA officer who has engaged in counterproliferation work? Over the years, I’ve generally been a critic of the CIA, but I do want the agency to be successful in this mission. And I do not aim to needlessly jeopardize anyone’s career. In my 1994 book on the CIA–Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusades–I named many a CIA person, but most were retired and had no objection to being identified. In one instance, a former CIA man who lived in a developing nation maintained that if he were fingered as a former CIA undercover officer his family might be targeted. I kept his name out of the book.
So should I ID this CIA person working at the White House? As Novak did, I called the CIA. I spoke to Mark Mansfield, a longtime CIA spokesperson. I informed him that I had learned about this CIA officer and mentioned the individual’s name. I asked if the CIA would confirm the person’s employment at the CIA and whether the agency wanted to make a case for not revealing his or her name. He said he would get back to me–and nothing more. Several hours later, he called. He had no “designated” official for me to speak with. “We generally don’t comment upon employment,” he said. But did he not want to argue against naming this person. Any guidance, off the record? I asked. No, he said. “As a general point,” Mansfield added, “we always prefer that CIA employees–whether they are undercover or overt–not be identified publicly because it can limit opportunities to travel overseas and can have unintended consequences.”
That was hardly a forceful argument. No pleading. No melodramatic warnings that I would be endangering one person’s career and ruining operations around the world. In a way, this echoed the weak pushback Novak claims he received when he contacted the CIA about Valerie Wilson. Still, Novak reports, the CIA did talk to him about Valerie Wilson’s position at the CIA and her (apparently small) role in the Niger business. That was more help than I received. I suppose the CIA officials who discussed my request might have figured that if they had asked me not to identify this NSC officer they would be confirming his CIA employment. So they left me in the cold–with my conscience.
It was, though, not a tough call. I have decried the Wilson leak and lambasted the White House for engineering it, doing nothing about it, or trying to exploit it (or all of the above). So I’m not going to drop a dime on this NSC staffer–not yet. Let’s see how the investigation goes–to the extent the public can discern what is happening. I am assuming that the feds are aware of this person. If not, they should contact me. I’m dying to tell somebody.
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