In the spring of 2002 Dick Cheney made one of his periodic trips to CIA headquarters. Officers and analysts were summoned to brief him on Iraq. Paramilitary specialists updated the Vice President on an extensive covert action program in motion that was designed to pave the way to a US invasion. Cheney questioned analysts about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. How could they be used against US troops? Which Iraqi units had chemical and biological weapons? He was not seeking information on whether Saddam posed a threat because he possessed such weapons. His queries, according to a CIA officer at the briefing, were pegged to the assumptions that Iraq had these weapons and would be invaded–as if a decision had been made.
Though Cheney was already looking toward war, the officers of the agency’s Joint Task Force on Iraq–part of the Counterproliferation Division of the agency’s clandestine Directorate of Operations–were frantically toiling away in the basement, mounting espionage operations to gather information on the WMD programs Iraq might have. The JTFI was trying to find evidence that would back up the White House’s assertion that Iraq was a WMD danger. Its chief of operations was a career undercover officer named Valerie Wilson.
Her specific position at the CIA is revealed for the first time in a new book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, by the author of this article and Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff. The book chronicles the inside battles within the CIA, the White House, the State Department and Congress during the run-up to the war. Its account of Wilson’s CIA career is mainly based on interviews with confidential CIA sources.
In July 2003–four months after the invasion of Iraq–Wilson would be outed as a CIA “operative on weapons of mass destruction” in a column by conservative journalist Robert Novak, who would cite two “senior administration officials” as his sources. (As Hubris discloses, one was Richard Armitage, the number-two at the State Department; Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, was the other. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, also talked to two reporters about her.) Novak revealed her CIA identity–using her maiden name, Valerie Plame–in the midst of the controversy ignited by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, her husband, who had written a New York Times op-ed accusing the Bush Administration of having “twisted” intelligence “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
The Novak column triggered a scandal and a criminal investigation. At issue was whether Novak’s sources had violated a little-known law that makes it a federal crime for a government official to disclose identifying information about a covert US officer (if that official knew the officer was undercover). A key question was, what did Valerie Wilson do at the CIA? Was she truly undercover? In a subsequent column, Novak reported that she was “an analyst, not in covert operations.” White House press secretary Scott McClellan suggested that her employment at the CIA was no secret. Jonah Goldberg of National Review claimed, “Wilson’s wife is a desk jockey and much of the Washington cocktail circuit knew that already.”
Valerie Wilson was no analyst or paper-pusher. She was an operations officer working on a top priority of the Bush Administration. Armitage, Rove and Libby had revealed information about a CIA officer who had searched for proof of the President’s case. In doing so, they harmed her career and put at risk operations she had worked on and foreign agents and sources she had handled.
Another issue was whether Valerie Wilson had sent her husband to Niger to check out an intelligence report that Iraq had sought uranium there. Hubris contains new information undermining the charge that she arranged this trip. In an interview with the authors, Douglas Rohn, a State Department officer who wrote a crucial memo related to the trip, acknowledges he may have inadvertently created a misimpression that her involvement was more significant than it had been.
Valerie Plame was recruited into the CIA in 1985, straight out of Pennsylvania State University. After two years of training to be a covert case officer, she served a stint on the Greece desk, according to Fred Rustmann, a former CIA official who supervised her then. Next she was posted to Athens and posed as a State Department employee. Her job was to spot and recruit agents for the agency. In the early 1990s, she became what’s known as a nonofficial cover officer. NOCs are the most clandestine of the CIA’s frontline officers. They do not pretend to work for the US government; they do not have the protection of diplomatic immunity. They might claim to be a businessperson. She told people she was with an energy firm. Her main mission remained the same: to gather agents for the CIA.
In 1997 she returned to CIA headquarters and joined the Counterproliferation Division. (About this time, she moved in with Joseph Wilson; they later married.) She was eventually given a choice: North Korea or Iraq. She selected the latter. Come the spring of 2001, she was in the CPD’s modest Iraq branch. But that summer–before 9/11–word came down from the brass: We’re ramping up on Iraq. Her unit was expanded and renamed the Joint Task Force on Iraq. Within months of 9/11, the JTFI grew to fifty or so employees. Valerie Wilson was placed in charge of its operations group.
There was great pressure on the JTFI to deliver. Its primary target was Iraqi scientists. JTFI officers, under Wilson’s supervision, tracked down relatives, students and associates of Iraqi scientists–in America and abroad–looking for potential sources. They encouraged Iraqi émigrés to visit Iraq and put questions to relatives of interest to the CIA. The JTFI was also handling walk-ins around the world. Increasingly, Iraqi defectors were showing up at Western embassies claiming they had information on Saddam’s WMDs. JTFI officers traveled throughout the world to debrief them. Often it would take a JTFI officer only a few minutes to conclude someone was pulling a con. Yet every lead had to be checked.
“We knew nothing about what was going on in Iraq,” a CIA official recalled. “We were way behind the eight ball. We had to look under every rock.” Wilson, too, occasionally flew overseas to monitor operations. She also went to Jordan to work with Jordanian intelligence officials who had intercepted a shipment of aluminum tubes heading to Iraq that CIA analysts were claiming–wrongly–were for a nuclear weapons program. (The analysts rolled over the government’s top nuclear experts, who had concluded the tubes were not destined for a nuclear program.)
The JTFI found nothing. The few scientists it managed to reach insisted Saddam had no WMD programs. Task force officers sent reports detailing the denials into the CIA bureaucracy. The defectors were duds–fabricators and embellishers. (JTFI officials came to suspect that some had been sent their way by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, an exile group that desired a US invasion of Iraq.) The results were frustrating for the officers. Were they not doing their job well enough–or did Saddam not have an arsenal of unconventional weapons? Valerie Wilson and other JTFI officers were almost too overwhelmed to consider the possibility that their small number of operations was, in a way, coming up with the correct answer: There was no intelligence to find on Saddam’s WMDs because the weapons did not exist. Still, she and her colleagues kept looking. (She also assisted operations involving Iran and WMDs.)
When the war started in March 2003, JTFI officers were disappointed. “I felt like we ran out of time,” one CIA officer recalled. “The war came so suddenly. We didn’t have enough information to challenge the assumption that there were WMDs…. How do you know it’s a dry well? That Saddam was constrained. Given more time, we could have worked through the issue…. From 9/11 to the war–eighteen months–that was not enough time to get a good answer to this important question.”
When the Novak column ran, Valerie Wilson was in the process of changing her clandestine status from NOC to official cover, as she prepared for a new job in personnel management. Her aim, she told colleagues, was to put in time as an administrator–to rise up a notch or two–and then return to secret operations. But with her cover blown, she could never be undercover again. Moreover, she would now be pulled into the partisan warfare of Washington. As a CIA employee still sworn to secrecy, she wasn’t able to explain publicly that she had spent nearly two years searching for evidence to support the Administration’s justification for war and had come up empty.
Valerie Wilson left the CIA at the end of 2005. In July she and her husband filed a civil lawsuit against Cheney, Rove and Libby, alleging they had conspired to “discredit, punish and seek revenge against” the Wilsons. She is also writing a memoir. Her next battle may be with the agency–over how much of her story the CIA will allow the outed spy to tell.
For more information about Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, go to Amazon.com and Corn’s blog at www.davidcorn.com.