So much has been said and written about the outing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame—and the cast of characters that swirled around it, from Judith Miller to Karl Rove—that this weekend, for the seventh anniversary of how it all began, it seems proper to quote the first lines of the fateful Joseph C. Wilson IV op-ed in the New York Times:
"Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq? Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
The date, falling on the Sunday of another holiday weekend, was July 6, 2003. Remember op-ed title? "What I Didn’t Find in Africa." People in high places paid attention: as we now know, Vice President Cheney marked up a copy of the op-ed from the paper, wondering if the trip to Africa was "ordinarily" done or "did his wife send him on a junket?"
An article about Wilson’s Niger trip and views on the WMD threat appeared the same day in the Washington Post, since Wilson was going fully public with an appearance on Meet the Press.
Things then happened fast. The following day the Bush administration admitted that accusations included in the president’s 2003 State of the Union address had turned out to be inaccurate. At a press conference in Africa, Secretary of State Colin Powell concluded: "There was sufficient evidence floating around at that time that such a statement was not totally outrageous or not to be believed or not to be appropriately used. It’s that once we used the statement, and after further analysis, and looking at other estimates we had, and other information that was coming in, it turned out that the basis upon which that statement was made didn’t hold up…"
Within another day, Powell’s assistant Richard Armitage had provided the first—but by no means last—leak to columnist Robert Novak about Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame and the CIA.
On July 14, 2003, Novak identified "Wilson’s wife" publicly as "an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction" named "Valerie Plame" in his syndicated column. This effectively ended her CIA career.
Plame later testified before Congress: "I found out very early in the morning when my husband came in and dropped the newspaper on the bed and said, ‘He did it’…. We had indications in the week prior that Mr. Novak knew my identity and my true employer. And I of course alerted my superiors at the agency, and I was told, don’t worry; we’ll take care of it. And it was much to our surprise that we read about this July 14th."
Two days after that, David Corn at The Nation suggested that the leak was a crime. Wilson said: "Naming her this way would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated in her entire career. This is the stuff of Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames."
Of course, as we learned much later, Cheney’s aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby had learned about the Wilson/Plame connection the previous month and would blab about it with numerous officials and journalists such as Judy Miller and Matt Cooper.
He talked to Miller about Plame as early as June 23, 2003. He mentioned her to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on July 7, 2003. (Libby would claim that he first heard about her from Tim Russert three days after that.) Then Libby chatted about Plame with Karl Rove on July 11, 2003.
And the rest is (sad) history. Although early previews weren’t great, let’s hope there’s still hope for Sean Penn and Naomi Watts to salvage something out of the WIlson-Plame affair in the upcoming Doug LIman movie.
Greg Mitchell’s book So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President, Failed on Iraq, contains a good deal on the Plame case.