Four and a half years ago, after reading the Robert Novak column that outed Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative specializing in counter-proliferation work, I wrote an article in this space noting that this particular leak from Bush administration officials might have been a violation of a federal law prohibiting government officials from disclosing information about clandestine intelligence officers and (perhaps worse) might have harmed national security by exposing anti-WMD operations. That piece was the first to identify the leak as a possible White House crime and the first to characterize the leak as evidence that within the Bush administration political expedience trumped national security.
The column drew about 100,000 visitors to this website in a day or so. And–fairly or not–it’s been cited by some as the event that triggered the Plame hullabaloo. I doubt that the column prompted the investigation eventually conducted by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, for I assume that had my column not appeared the CIA still would have asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak as a possible crime. But now that Fitzgerald’s investigation is long done, the Scooter Libby spin-off is over (thanks to George W. Bush’s total commutation of Libby’s sentence), and Valerie Wilson has finally published her account, it seems a good time to say, I was right. And to add, where’s the apology?
From the start, neocons and conservative backers of the war dismissed the Plame leak and subsequent scandal as a big nothing. Some even claimed that somehow former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and I had cooked up the episode to ensnare the White House. (Oh, to be so devilishly clever–and to be so competent.) But these attempts to belittle the affair (and to belittle Valerie Wilson) were based on nothing but baseless spin. As was–no coincidence–the Iraq war. In fact, the Wilson imbroglio was something of a proxy war for the debate over the war itself. In the summer of 2003, when the Plame affair broke, those in and out of government who had misled the nation into the war saw the need to spin their way out of the Wilson controversy in order to protect the false sales pitch they had used to win public support for the invasion of Iraq.
First they attacked Joe Wilson when he disclosed that he had gone to Niger in February 2002 for the CIA and had reported back that the allegation Saddam Hussein had been uranium-shopping there was highly dubious. Then when Valerie Wilson’s CIA identity was exposed during the get-Wilson campaign, they pooh-poohed the leak. They subsequently spent years doing so. Here’s a brief list of Plame attacks I’ve published before:
* On September 29, 2003, former Republican Party spokesman Clifford May wrote that the July 14, 2003 Robert Novak column that disclosed Valerie Wilson’s CIA connection “wasn’t news to me. I had been told that–but not by anyone working in the White House. Rather, I learned it from someone who formerly worked in the government and he mentioned it in an offhand manner, leading me to infer it was something that insiders were well aware of.”
* On September 30, 2003, National Review writer Jonah Goldberg huffed, “Wilson’s wife is a desk jockey and much of the Washington cocktail circuit knew that already.”
* On October 1, 2003, Novak wrote, “How big a secret was it? It was well known around Washington that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA….[A]n unofficial source at the agency says she has been an analyst, not in covert operations.”
* On July 17, 2005, Republican Representative Roy Blunt, then the House majority leader, said on Face the Nation, “This was a job that the ambassador’s wife had that she went to every day. It was a desk job. I think many people in Washington understood that her employment was at the CIA, and she went to that office every day.”
* On February 18, 2007, as the Libby trial was under way, Republican lawyer/operative Victoria Toensing asserted in The Washington Post, “Plame was not covert.”
* In his recently published memoirs, Novak wrote of Valerie Wilson, “She was not involved in clandestine activities. Instead, each day she went to CIA headquarters in Langley where she worked on arms proliferation.”
A year ago, in our book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff and I disclosed for the first time that Valerie Wilson was operations chief at the Joint Task Force on Iraq of the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA’s clandestine operations directorate. She was no paper-pusher or analyst, as Novak and others had said. She was in charge of covert operations on a critical front. (Isikoff and I detailed some of her work in the book.) As part of her job, she traveled overseas under cover. CBS News recently reported that it had confirmed she had also worked on operations designed to prevent Iran from obtaining or developing nuclear weapons. Ironic? Ask Dick Cheney.
And Valerie Wilson was not known about Washington as a spy. Though Cliff May has made this argument, in the years since the Novak column appeared, no one in Washington has come forward to say, “Oh yes, I knew about her before Novak outed her.” In fact, Valerie Wilson was a mid-level, career CIA officer–there must be hundreds, if not thousands–and such people are (to be frank) not usually on the radar screen of Washington insiders. They are not known regulars on the D.C. cocktail circuit, such as it is. Ask Sally Quinn.
For her part, Valerie Wilson, who left the CIA at the end of 2005, has only recently been able to challenge the purposefully misleading descriptions of her CIA tenure. Appearing before the House government oversight and reform committee in March, she testified the she was a “covert officer” who had helped to “manage and run operations.” She said that prior to the Iraq invasion she had “raced to discover intelligence” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. “I also traveled to foreign countries on secret missions,” she said under oath, “to find vital intelligence.” She noted that she could “count on one hand” the number of people outside the CIA who knew of her spy work.
On Sunday, as she launched her new book, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, she appeared on 60 Minutes and repeated her case. Though the CIA has absurdly prevented her from acknowledging that she worked for the agency prior to 2002–she started there in 1985–Wilson told Katie Couric, “Our mission was to make sure that the bad guys basically did not get nuclear weapons.” After her name appeared in the Novak column, she said, “I can tell you, all the intelligence services in the world that morning were running my name through their databases to see, ‘Did anyone by this name come in the country? When? Do we know anything about it? Where did she stay? Well, who did she see?’…It puts in danger, if not shuts down, the operations that I had worked on.”
What damage was actually done by the leak remains a secret. On 60 Minutes, Valerie Wilson said a damage assessment was conducted by the CIA but that she never saw it. She added, “I certainly didn’t reach out to my old assets and ask them how they’re doing, although I would have liked to have.” That damage report has not been leaked. Nor has it been a subject of congressional interest–as far as one can publicly tell. in 2003, the Democrats in Congress who cared about the Plame leak were obsessed with calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor. That fixation proved to be a mistake. A special prosecutor could only focus on criminal matters and could only disclose information necessary for a prosecution–rules that Patrick Fitzgerald would stick by. The Democrats never pushed for a congressional investigation that could have examined (and perhaps made public, even if in a limited fashion) key issues in the case, such as the consequences of the leak. Valerie Wilson said to Couric that the damage was “serious.” The public ought to know if this is so. (When I once asked Senator Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, if he had any intention of probing the Plame leak, he said he no interest in doing so.)
In trying to spin their way out of the CIA leak mess, the neocon gang made much of the fact (again, first revealed by Isikoff and me) that Richard Armitage, who was the No. 2 at the State Department and a neocon-hating Iraq war skeptic, was the administration official who initially told Novak that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. But the Plamegate deniers often ignore the inconvenient truth that White House aide Karl Rove–during the White House campaign to undermine Joe Wilson–confirmed this classified information for Novak and also passed the same leak to Matt Cooper, then of Time. (It was only because Cooper’s editors at the newsmagazine did not care about Wilson’s wife that Novak published the leak first.) Libby and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also shared information about Wilson’s wife and her CIA connection with reporters. This was all part of the White House effort to tarnish Wilson by making it seem as if his trip to Niger had been nothing but a nepotistic junket. And as testimony and documents presented at the Libby trial showed, Vice President Cheney had been driving the pushback effort and had early on learned about Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment and then conveyed that information to Libby.
Yes, this was a case of putting politics (getting Joe Wilson) ahead of national security concerns (such as protecting the identity and operations of a CIA officer working the WMD beat).
It is true that at the end of the day, no one was charged with a crime for leaking information on Valerie Wilson. Patrick Fitzgerald decided that he could not prove in court–as he would have to under the law–that the leakers knew that Valerie Wilson was a covert officer. But Fitzgerald did pursue Libby and Rove for possibly lying to FBI agents and the grand jury investigating the leak. He nabbed Libby but, after much consideration, opted not to indict Rove.
Still, Rove was caught in a lie. Toward the start of the Plame affair, the White House declared that Rove was not involved in the leak, and Bush indicated that anyone who had leaked classified information would be dismissed. But the White House statement regarding Rove was false (probably because Rove had misled White House press secretary Scott McClellan). Bush’s promise was false, too, for Rove remained Bush’s master strategist even after Isikoff published an email showing that Rove had leaked classified information about Valerie Wilson to Cooper.
The bottom line: this episode demonstrated that the Bush White House was not honest (the vice president’s chief of staff was even convicted of lying to law enforcement officials), that top Bush officials had risked national security for partisan gain, and that White House champions outside the government would eagerly hurl false accusations to defend the administration.
So is anyone apologizing? For ruining Valerie Wilson’s career? For perhaps endangering operations and agents? For lying about the leak? For misleading the public about Rove’s role? For placing spin above the truth? Armitage did apologize (via a media interview) to the Wilsons. But no one else involved has. And no one–not Bush, not Cheney, not their aides, not their neocon confederates–has admitted any wrongdoing in this saga.
It’s like the war: false statements, false cover stories, and failure to concede the errors in judgment and action that have caused harm to national security. But the meta-narrative of Bush and his neoconservative allies is one of no apology, no surrender. They say and do what they must to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions. Reality be damned. What matters is what they can get away with. In the case of Valerie Plame Wilson, they did escape retribution. In the larger case of the Iraq war, they are still hoping to.
A FAREWELL: This is my last “Capital Games” article for The Nation. After twenty years of representing The Nation in Washington–and five years of writing this web column–I am leaving the magazine to become chief of Mother Jones‘ new seven-person Washington bureau. It’s been an honor to be part of America’s oldest political weekly and to write for you. I hope you continue to read and support The Nation–and that you also check out the work I do for Mother Jones. You can read my farewell letter to The Nation here. And a reminder: I will continue to blog at www.davidcorn.com, which is about to become part of an expanded and redesigned CQ.com. Thank you for all the clicks.