I’ve had many a conservative say many an unflattering–and untrue–thing about me over the years (while some have been kind and accurate). But I don’t believe any detractor has testified falsely about me before the U.S. Congress–not until Republican lawyer/commentator Victoria Toensing appeared before the House oversight and government reform committee on Friday.
Toensing was on a panel that was part of the hearing starring retired CIA officer Valerie (Plame) Wilson, who for the first time publicly discussed at length the leak episode and her former status at the agency as a covert officer. After Wilson finished and after James Knodell, director of security at the White House, testified (to the surprise and outrage of Democratic members of the committee) that the White House never investigated the possible involvement of White House officials (such as Karl Rove) in the Plame leak, Toensing took a seat at the witness table.
Toensing, who was a lawyer for the Republican-run Senate intelligence committee in the 1980s and a Justice Department official during the Reagan administration, has been a point-person for the Libby Lobby, denouncing special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation of the Plame leak and deriding his indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former top aide, for perjury and obstruction of justice. At the hearing, Toensing, looking to absolve White House officials of wrongdoing, blasted the CIA for not adequately protecting Valerie Wilson, and she argued that Valerie Wilson was not a “covert agent” under the terms of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a crime for a government official to disclose information about an undercover CIA officer in certain circumstances. Toensing helped draft the law in the early 1980s. (More on all that in a moment.)
As the hearing was winding down–when the audience had thinned out and the camera crews and reporters were mostly gone–Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen grilled Toensing about the White House’s internal lack of curiosity about the leak. While fending off the questions, Toensing dragged me into the picture. Here’s the exchange:
VAN HOLLEN: [White House press secretary] Scott McClellan in another statement said, “We have no information in the White House about any of these disclosures.” Before you made that kind of statement, wouldn’t you undertake some kind of investigation?
TOENSING: Well, I’m not here to answer for Scott McClellan. I don’t know what was in his mind.
VAN HOLLEN: …A long period of time went by when no administration administrative action was taken. And, as I understand your response to the question by [Democratic Representative Diane] Watson, you would agree that that kind of sort of investigation goes on routinely when there’s been a disclosure of classified information, does it not?
TOENSING: It can and it cannot. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t have done it in the brouhaha that had occurred well within a week of Bob Novak’s publication [of the column that outed Valerie Wilson]. By the way, Bob Novak was not the first person to say she was covert. That was David Corn, who printed that she was covert. All Bob Novak did was call her an operative.
Stop the presses. I said Valerie Wilson was a “covert” officer? This is a canard that some Republican spinners have been peddling for years, in an attempt to get Novak off the hook while muddying the waters. I long ago gave up on persuading conservative ops like Toensing that this is nonsense they should drop, and I no longer routinely reply every time the silly charge is repeated. But when someone testifies falsely about you to Congress, you practically have a civic duty to call him or her on it.
Once again (Victoria), here’s what happened. On July 14, 2003–in the midst of the firestorm fueled by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s charge that the White House had twisted the prewar intelligence–Novak published a column about the Wilson affair. Halfway through the piece, Novak, citing “two senior administration officials,” reported,
Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.
This was the first media reference to Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer. It appeared in newspapers across the country. Intelligence agencies around the world must have noticed. Once this story was out, Valerie Wilson’s cover was destroyed; her career was ruined; her operations and contacts were imperiled to whatever degree they were imperiled.
Two days later–after the damage was done–I wrote the first article noting that the leak was “a potential violation of the law” and explained that Novak’s sources could face prosecution under the little-known Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Note the use of the word “potential.” For this article, I interviewed Joseph Wilson and, as the piece reported, he would “neither confirm nor deny that his wife…works for the CIA.”
My piece raised the possibility that Valerie Wilson was a “nonofficial cover” officer (a.k.a. a NOC). This was only deduction on my part. Valerie Wilson was known to friends as an energy analyst for a private firm. If she indeed was a CIA officer, she would have to be a NOC, for CIA officers who operate under regular cover tell people they work for other government agencies (such as the State Department or the Pentagon). CIA officers under regular cover do not pretend to be businesspeople. My article did not state that she was a CIA official (NOC or non-NOC). In the column, I even raised the possibility that Novak had botched the story and that “the White House has wrongly branded” Valerie Wilson “as a CIA officer.”
Bottom line: I did not identify her as a “covert” officer or any other kind of CIA official. I merely speculated she was a NOC. That speculation was based on Novak’s column. And given that Novak had already IDed her as a CIA “operative on weapons of mass destruction” (which happened to be a “covert” position within the agency), her cover–whether nonofficial or official–was blown to smithereens by the time I posted my article.
Toensing is engaged in a desperation-driven and misleading act of hairsplitting when she contends that Novak merely called her an “operative” and that I was the first to “print that she was covert.” I never said Valerie Wilson was anything. At the time of the leak and in the following days, I did not know if she was a CIA employee of any kind. (But in our book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff and I revealed for the first time what Valerie Wilson did at the CIA: she was operations chief for the Joint Task Force on Iraq, a unit with the Counterproliferation Division of the agency’s clandestine operations directorate.)
So Toensing made a false statement to Congress. It was not her only one that day.
Toensing has repeatedly declared in recent years that Valerie Wilson was not a “covert” officer. In a Washington Post article last month, she made a definitive declaration: “Plame was not covert.” Of course, Plame was a clandestine officer–as she and the CIA have confirmed. But Toensing claims that when she denies Valerie Wilson was a “covert” CIA employee she only means that Valerie Wilson was not a “covert agent” under the definitions of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. But to make this case, Toensing has to be disingenuous about the law she helped to craft.
During her testimony on Friday, she pointed to the law’s definition of a “covert agent” and said, “The person is supposed to reside outside of the United States.” That is not what the law says–and one can presume Toensing knows the actual details of the legislation. In defining a “covert agent” (whose identity cannot be disclosed under the act), the law cites two criteria for a current officer or employee of an intelligence agency: that person’s “identity as such an officer, employee, or member is classified information” and that officer has to be “serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States.” Pay attention to Toensing’s sleight of hand. Under oath, she told the committee the law applied to clandestine officers residing abroad. Not so.
In her recent Washington Post piece, Toensing wrote of Valerie Wilson, “She worked at CIA headquarters and had not been stationed abroad within five years of the date of Novak’s column.” This means, Toensing has argued, that Valerie Wilson could not be covered by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. But Valerie Wilson testified that she had been dispatched on overseas missions under cover in the five years prior to the Novak column–an indication she had “served” abroad. (Hubris reported that as well.) Toensing is free to maintain that the law ought to cover only those officers residing overseas as part of a long-term foreign assignment. But that is not what the act says. By stating that the act defines a “covert agent” as an officer residing abroad (as opposed to an officer who had “served” overseas), Toensing misrepresented the law to members of the committee. (By the way, both Fitzgerald and the CIA have said that Valerie Wilson’s employment relationship with the CIA was classified.)
As a lawyer, Toensing is probably aware that knowingly making a false statement to a congressional committee conducting an investigation or review is a federal crime. (See Title 18, Section 1001 of the U.S. Code.) The punishment is a fine and/or imprisonment of up to five years. To say that I identified Valerie Wilson as a “covert” officer is to make a false statement.
Toensing’s testimony did not impress Representative Henry Waxman, the committee chairman. As he wrapped up the session, he told her, “Some of the statements you’ve made without any doubt and with great authority I understand may not be accurate, so we’re going to check the information and we’re going to hold the record open to put in other things that might contradict some of what you had to say.” Perhaps Waxman will include this article in the record.
DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.