Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security–and break the law–in order to strike at a Bush Administration critic and intimidate others? It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Robert Novak can be trusted. In a recent column on Nigergate, Novak examined the role of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV in the affair. On July 6 Wilson went public, writing in the New York Times about the trip he took to Niger in February 2002–at the request of the CIA–to check out allegations that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapons program. Wilson came home and told the CIA that it was “highly doubtful” Saddam had been able to buy uranium from Niger. (His findings were later confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.) Reports, including Wilson’s own, of his trip revved up the controversy over Bush’s claim–which he made in his State of the Union address–that Iraq had attempted to obtain uranium in Africa for a nuclear weapons program. News of Wilson’s mission provided more reason to suspect the Administration of misrepresenting intelligence in making its case for war on Iraq.

Soon after Wilson disclosed his trip in the media, the payback came. Novak’s July 14 column contained the following sentences: “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 Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate.”

Wilson caused problems for the White House, and his wife was outed. “I will not answer questions about my wife,” he says. “This is about me and less so about my wife. It has always been about the facts underpinning the President’s statement in the State of the Union speech.” He will neither confirm nor deny that his wife works for the CIA. But assuming she does, that would seem to mean that the Bush Administration has screwed one of its own top-secret operatives–and compromised national security–in order to punish Wilson or to send a message to others who might dare challenge it.

The sources for Novak’s assertion about Wilson’s wife appear to be “two senior administration officials.” That is, a pair of top Bush officials told a reporter the name of a deep-cover CIA officer who has had the dicey and difficult mission of tracking parties trying to buy or sell weapons of mass destruction or WMD material. If that’s true, her career has been destroyed. Without acknowledging whether she is a CIA employee, Wilson says, “Naming her this way would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated in her entire career.” If she is not a CIA employee and Novak is reporting accurately, then the White House has wrongly branded a woman known to friends as an energy analyst for a private firm as a CIA officer.

This is not only a possible breach of national security; it is a potential violation of law. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, it is a crime for anyone with access to classified information to intentionally disclose a covert agent. The punishment is a fine of up to $50,000 and/or up to ten years in prison. Journalists are mostly protected from prosecution. Thus, Novak need not worry.

Novak tells me he was indeed tipped off by government officials and had no reluctance about naming her. “I figured if they gave it to me,” he says, “they’d give it to others.” Was Wilson’s wife involved in sending him off to Niger? Wilson will say only, “I was invited out to meet with a group of people at the CIA who were interested in this subject. None I knew more than casually.”

So where’s the investigation? Remember Filegate–and the Republican charge that the Clinton White House used privileged information against its foes? In this instance, it appears that Bush Administration officials gathered information on Wilson and his family, and then revealed classified material to lash out at him. “Stories like this,” Wilson says, “are not intended to intimidate me, since I’ve already told my story. But it’s pretty clear it is intended to intimidate others who might come forward.”

Since Bush Administration officials are so devoted to protecting government secrets–such as the identity of the energy lobbyists with whom the Vice President meets–one might (theoretically) expect them to be appalled by the possibility that classified information was disclosed and national security harmed for a political hit job. Yet after the Novak column appeared, there was no immediate comment from the White House–or any other public reverberation. The Wilson smear was a thuggish act, a sign that with this gang politics trumps national security.