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Imperial Bush
A closer look at the Bush record -- from the war in Iraq to the war on the environment

2004 Campaign
Will Americans take the exit ramp off the Bush presidency in November?

Behind Colin Powell's Legend
Colin Powell's sterling reputation in Washington hides his life-long role as water-carrier for conservative ideologues.

The 2000 Campaign
Recounting the controversial presidential campaign

Media Crisis
Is the national media a danger to democracy?

The Clinton Scandals
The story behind President Clinton's impeachment

Nazi Echo
Pinochet & Other Characters

The Dark Side of Rev. Moon
Rev. Sun Myung Moon and American politics

Contra Crack
Contra drug stories uncovered

Lost History
How the American historical record has been tainted by lies and cover-ups

The October Surprise "X-Files"
The 1980 October Surprise scandal exposed

From free trade to the Kosovo crisis

Other Investigative Stories


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Letting the White House Walk?

By Robert Parry
October 30, 2005

As an outsider to Washington, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald appears to have misunderstood the finer points of how national security classifications work when a secret is as discrete – and sensitive – as the identity of an undercover CIA officer.

In his five-count indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby, prosecutor Fitzgerald leaves the false impression that it was all right for White House officials with security clearances to be discussing the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, a counter-proliferation official under deep cover.

Under the rules of classification, however, to see such secrets an official must not only have a top-secret clearance but also special code-word clearance that grants access to a specific compartment governed by strict need-to-know requirements.

In both the Libby indictment and a hour-long press conference on Oct. 28, Fitzgerald showed no indication he understood how extraordinary it was for White House officials to be bandying about the name of a covert CIA officer based on the flimsy rationale that she was married to an ex-diplomat who had been sent on a fact-finding trip to Niger.

Fitzgerald, who is the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, appears to have bought into the notion that government officials had a right to discuss Plame’s covert status among themselves as long as they didn’t pass the secret on to journalists. Then Fitzgerald didn’t even seek punishment for that, limiting his criminal case to Libby’s lying about how and when he learned of Plame’s identity.

But to veterans of U.S. intelligence, one of the ugliest parts of Plame’s outing was the cavalier manner in which White House officials tossed around references to her CIA job to undercut her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for criticizing George W. Bush’s case for war with Iraq.

Sensitive Secrets

Within the U.S. government, few secrets are more sensitive than the identity of a CIA officer under “non-official cover,” or NOC, meaning the agent operates outside government protection, such as posing as a business executive as Plame did. Lacking diplomatic cover, a NOC faces a far greater chance of execution if caught spying.

“The CIA is obsessive about protecting its NOCs,” one angry former senior U.S. official told me after Libby was charged only with perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice. “There’s almost nothing they care about more.”

Fitzgerald did leave open the possibility there might be more charges against other officials but said he had completed the “substantial bulk” of his investigation. He also discouraged speculation that major new revelations were ahead and even skirted questions about whether an underlying crime had occurred in leaking Plame’s identity.

Some Americans, especially Iraq War critics, were deflated by Fitzgerald’s insistence that he would prosecute only clearly defined crimes stemming from the Plame case, not venture into a fuller narrative about the Bush administration’s justifications for war.

Administration officials are not entirely out of hot water, however, because new disclosures could emerge from Libby’s trial or from additional indictments that Fitzgerald might seek before he wraps up his investigation. According to press accounts, Bush’s top political adviser Karl Rove remains under investigation for his role in leaking Plame’s identity to journalists.

In one of the most mysterious revelations about Fitzgerald’s hectic activities on Oct. 28, the day of the Libby indictment, was the New York Times report that the special prosecutor made an unexplained visit to the office of James Sharp, President Bush’s personal lawyer. [NYT, Oct. 29, 2005]

Niger’s Uranium

The Wilson-Plame case goes back to 2002 when Vice President Cheney expressed interest in a dubious report about Iraq seeking processed uranium from Africa. In response, CIA officials who worked with Plame decided to send Wilson to Niger to check out the reports.

Wilson, who had served as a diplomat in both Iraq and Africa, returned with the conclusion that the reports were most likely untrue. (The Niger allegations were later debunked by U.N. investigators.)

However, in the State of Union address in January 2003, Bush cited the Niger allegations as part of his rationale for war with Iraq. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq two months later, but U.S. forces failed to discover any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program.

By spring 2003, Wilson began talking privately to journalists about his Niger findings and criticizing the administration for hyping the WMD intelligence. Behind the scenes, the White House began to hit back, collecting information about Wilson and his trip.

Vice President Cheney and other White House officials soon learned that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA on counter-proliferation issues and had a minor hand in arranging Wilson’s trip to Africa.

White House officials then began what appears to have been an organized campaign to leak the identity of Wilson’s wife, presumably to suggest that nepotism was involved in the Niger trip or to cast doubt on Wilson’s manliness.

The anti-Wilson campaign gained momentum after he penned an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, accusing the administration of having “twisted” the WMD intelligence, including the Niger allegations, to justify war with Iraq.

Eight days later, on July 14, 2003, right-wing pundit Robert Novak outed Plame in a column that cited two administration sources describing Plame as a “CIA operative.”

Privately, some administration officials acknowledged that the Plame disclosure was an act of retaliation against Wilson for being one of the first mainstream public figures to challenge Bush on the WMD intelligence.

In September 2003, a White House official told the Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before Novak’s column. The official said the disclosure was “purely and simply out of revenge.”

Damaging Exposure

In indicting Libby on five counts of making false statements, perjury and obstructing justice, Fitzgerald added a few new details to the overall story and confirmed some facts that had appeared in press accounts.

The indictment alleged that Libby – who also served as a national security aide to President Bush – learned of Plame’s identity from a CIA official and from Vice President Cheney, before passing the information to at least two journalists, New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time correspondent Matthew Cooper.

When the leak investigation began, Libby concocted a false tale, claiming that he had first learned of Plame’s identity from NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert and had simply recycled the rumor to reporters, the indictment said. In reality, the indictment said, Plame never came up in the Russert-Libby conversation. 

While denouncing Libby’s alleged deceptions as a serious crime, Fitzgerald splashed cold water on the notion that his investigation might unravel a larger government conspiracy into how not only Plame was exposed but also the company that provided her cover and possibly other agents who assisted her in tracking down sources of WMD.

The limited scope of the Libby indictment buoyed some conservatives, including former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, who pounced on its narrow construction as a sign of White House vindication.

Meanwhile, other Republicans made clear that while they would spare Fitzgerald from a public-relations counter-offensive, they would continue their long-running campaign to disparage Wilson.

Because of his criticism of Bush’s use of WMD intelligence, Wilson – who is now just a private citizen – has become a bete noire for Republicans, on par with their hatred for the French, the United Nations or filmmaker Michael Moore.

Three months ago, the Republican National Committee even posted an article entitled “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements,” which itself used glaring inaccuracies and misstatements to discredit Wilson. [For details, see’s “Novak Recycles Gannon on ‘Plame-gate.’”]

However, what upsets some Americans most about Fitzgerald’s narrow indictment of Libby is that it seems to have let other participants in the Plame leak off the hook.

The larger conspiracy – to punish an Iraq War critic for telling the truth about false intelligence used to take the United States to war – will go unpunished and unexplained, at least for now.

In street terms, it looks a lot like the White House got a walk.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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