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.”