The argument – used then to defend CounterSpy and
now to protect Rove for outing CIA officer Valerie Plame – was that the
covers for the two CIA officers had previously been blown and that the
CIA hadn’t done enough to maintain the secrecy.
Over the past two weeks, following revelations that
Rove discussed Plame’s CIA role with journalists in 2003, right-wing
commentators have asserted that no crime was committed because Plame’s
CIA identity was “common knowledge” to some of her friends and because
her cover had already been breached.
For instance, an editorial in the right-wing
Washington Times asserted that Plame’s identity “was compromised twice
before her name appeared” in Robert Novak’s column of July 14, 2003.
“Mrs. Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA officer
was first disclosed to Russia in the mid-1990s by a Moscow spy,” the
Times said. “In a second compromise, officials said a more recent
inadvertent disclosure resulted in references to Mrs. Plame in
confidential documents sent by the CIA to the U.S. Interests Section of
the Swiss Embassy in Havana. … Cubans read the classified material and
learned the secrets contained in them, the officials said.” [Washington
Times editorial, July 19, 2005.]
In the mid-1970s, a similar debate raged over
CounterSpy, a magazine associated with renegade CIA officer Phil Agee,
for listing Welch’s name before the CIA station chief was gunned down in
Athens in 1975.
Though U.S. officials, including then-CIA Director
George H.W. Bush, blamed CounterSpy for contributing to Welch's death,
the magazine’s defenders noted that Welch had been previously fingered
as a CIA officer by a European publication and that the CIA had
carelessly assigned him a house previously used by CIA station chiefs.
But the CounterSpy defense didn’t stop Congress
from citing the Welch assassination as the principal justification for
passing a law in 1982 making the willful identification of a CIA officer
a criminal offense.
That law is now at the center of the investigation
into whether officials in George W. Bush’s administration committed a
crime by disclosing Plame’s identity as retaliation for her husband,
former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, writing that Bush had “twisted”
intelligence in hyping Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.
Ironically, conservatives – who staunchly supported
the 1982 law and denounced Agee as a traitor – are now claiming the law
should not apply to Rove. In doing so, they are citing some of the same
reasons that caused liberals to oppose the law’s enactment as a response
to the outing of Welch.
But the flaw in both the CounterSpy and Rove
defenses is that just because information might have reached a limited
number of unauthorized people doesn’t mean that everyone who might want
to harm a CIA officer knows the facts. For instance, there’s no evidence
that Moscow or Havana shared what they might have known about Plame with
al-Qaeda or other Islamic terrorists.
Yet by leaking the Plame information to Novak, Bush
administration officials exposed to al-Qaeda and its allies not only a
CIA officer who was involved in tracking weapons of mass destruction,
but also overseas agents who may have assisted Plame in her work and the
cover company she used while spying abroad.
Similarly, the Greek assassins who gunned down
Welch may or may not have known about the earlier leak of his name or
about the use of his residence by previous CIA station chiefs. It’s also
unclear if the terrorists read CounterSpy.
But by listing Welch’s name, CounterSpy increased
the danger to the CIA station chief – just as Rove and other Bush
administration officials heightened risks for Plame and anyone who
assisted her in tracking WMD shipments.
A ‘Secret’ Memo
In July 2003, Bush administration officials also
had reason to know that Plame was still an undercover agent, since the
paragraph in a State Department memo that mentioned her identity and her
marriage to Wilson was marked “S” for secret, according to press
Post, July 21, 2005]
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is heading
the leak investigation, has reportedly focused on the memo, which was
carried aboard Air Force One on July 7, 2003, a day after Wilson wrote a
New York Times op-ed article criticizing Bush’s assertions that Iraq had
sought yellowcake uranium from Niger.
A day later, on July 8, right-wing columnist Robert
Novak told Rove that he (Novak) had heard that Plame had sent Wilson on
the mission to Niger, according to a lawyer who has spoken to several
news organizations. The lawyer said Rove responded, “I heard that, too.”
[Washington Post, July 17, 2005]
Although the administration has never spelled out
why it considered Plame’s alleged role in sending her husband on the
Niger mission so significant, the point apparently was to raise doubts
about Wilson’s manhood, as a guy who needed his wife’s help to get a
The more salient point would seem to be that
Wilson’s judgment that Iraq was not seeking yellowcake uranium turned
out to be correct. Even by July 2003, U.S. weapons inspectors were
discovering that pre-invasion claims about Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and a
nuclear weapons program weren’t checking out.
On July 11, 2003, CIA Director George Tenet
apologized for not keeping the yellowcake reference out of the State of
the Union speech. “This did not rise to the level of certainty which
should be required for presidential speeches,” Tenet said.
Despite that admission, the Bush administration
continued its behind-the-scenes assault on Wilson and his credibility.
Time correspondent Matthew Cooper interviewed Rove about Wilson on the
same day as Tenet’s apology and Rove disclosed that Wilson’s wife worked
at the CIA on WMD issues.
According to an internal Time e-mail, Cooper
informed his editor that Rove offered a “big warning” not to “get too
far out on Wilson” and that “KR said” the Niger trip was authorized by
“wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency (CIA) on wmd issues.”
July 18, 2005, issue]
‘Said Too Much’
In a little-noticed part of Cooper’s account, Rove
also revealed that he was aware of the classified nature of the
information surrounding Wilson’s trip.
Cooper said his notes reveal that after discussing
Wilson’s CIA wife, Rove said “material was going to be declassified in
the coming days that would cast doubt on Wilson’s mission and his
findings.” In ending the conversation, Rove said, “I’ve already said too
much,” according to Cooper. [Time,
July 25, 2005, issue]
The next day, July 12, 2003, Cooper said he
received confirmation of Rove’s information about the CIA employment of
Wilson’s wife from Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice
President Dick Cheney.
In the same time period, White House officials
reportedly were circulating the information about Plame to other
reporters. “A senior administration official flagged the role of
Wilson’s wife, almost in passing, to the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus,”
the Post reported in a later chronology of the case.
On July 14, 2003, Novak’s column made public the
secret about Plame’s CIA identity. Novak also wrote that “two
senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending
him to Niger to investigate” the yellowcake report.
Although the CIA soon submitted a criminal referral
to the Justice Department about the leaking of Plame’s name, the case
languished until December 2003 when U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald was
appointed as a special prosecutor. The case gained new momentum in July
2005 with the disclosure of Rove’s role in identifying Plame.
Yet almost as stunning as this month’s revelations
about Rove has been the lock-step reaction from right-wing commentators
– as well as the Republican National Committee – as they lined up to
defend Rove and continue trashing Wilson.
A major point in Rove’s defense has been that Plame
was based at CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., supposedly making her CIA
employment “common knowledge” around Washington. The reasoning seems to
be that identities of home-based CIA officers are so readily known in
Washington that no one can blame Rove for giving up Plame’s identity.
This pro-Rove argument has a jaded worldliness
popular with TV pundits who are fond of quipping that “there are no
secrets in Washington” – except, of course, the many that they don’t
In the Plame case, Rove’s defenders are suggesting
that the identities of CIA officers are everyday fodder for Washington
cocktail parties, after which journalists supposedly rush back to the
office to spice up their stories with “secret” CIA identities.
But that just isn’t true. As a journalist who has
covered intelligence issues for a quarter century, I have never
encountered that kind of cavalier attitude toward the naming of CIA
officers. In interviews and conversations that I’ve had even with
government officials I’ve known for years, they steer clear of naming
CIA personnel they work with
The rule of thumb is to assume that a CIA officer’s
name is a national security secret unless you specifically know
otherwise. At the CIA, public identities are mostly limited to employees
in the press office and senior agency officials, such as the director
and deputy directors.
Not only do most government officials take pains to
protect the identities of CIA employees, but so do most journalists who
may learn the names of CIA officers while working on articles. CIA
identities are only used in stories if the countervailing principle of
the public’s right to know is so compelling that use of the name can’t
Novak’s column was an aberration from these
longstanding Washington ground rules. Plus, the violation was striking
because the justification for disclosing Plame was so weak – that she
may have recommended her husband for the trip to Niger.
Since Wilson was otherwise qualified for the
assignment and since his conclusion about the bogus Niger claims turned
out to be true, it’s never been entirely clear why the White House
considered his wife’s role in the trip important enough to override the
mandate for protecting the identity of CIA officers.
It’s also still a mystery why the discrete secret
of Plame’s identity would have been shared with political operative Rove
– and by whom.
Wilson concluded that the outing of his wife was an
act of retaliation – and there is evidence to support that suspicion. In
September 2003, a senior White House official told the Washington Post
that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before Novak’s
column appeared. The official said the disclosures about Plame were
“purely and simply out of revenge.”
(The myth that Plame was not a clandestine officer
at the time of Novak’s column gained traction because of a mistaken
report on July 15, 2005, by the Associated Press, which misinterpreted a
comment that Wilson made during a CNN interview. The AP took Wilson’s
comment that “my wife was not a clandestine officer the day that Bob
Novak blew her identity” to mean that she had already left the covert
world, when Wilson actually meant that Novak’s column ended her covert
career. AP ran a correction but conservatives widely circulated the
Another stunning part of the Rove defense has been
how quickly right-wing commentators have flip-flopped from their
traditional hard-line stance decrying the unauthorized disclosure of
national security secrets.
For instance, six months ago, Tony Blankley,
editorial page editor of the Washington Times, suggested prosecuting New
Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh on espionage charges
(carrying a possible death penalty) for disclosing secret U.S. military
reconnaissance operations inside Iran.
In a Jan. 19, 2005, column entitled “Espionage
by any other name,” Blankley argued that Hersh had given sensitive
secrets to the enemy by describing U.S. preparations for war with Iran.
Blankley cited the precedent of the government using the Espionage Act
to convict Navy analyst Samuel Morison for selling photos of a Soviet
ship to a Jane’s military publication in the mid-1980s.
Yet Hersh’s article had an obvious importance to a
national public debate about whether the Iraq War should be extended to
Iran. Hersh’s New Yorker article was alerting the American people to how
advanced the war planning already was.
No similar argument could be made about an
overriding need for the public to know the identity of Valerie Plame.
Yet, the Washington Times – along with other conservative news outlets –
decried the Hersh leak while defending the Rove-Novak leak.
There is also irony in the Washington Times making
pronouncements about espionage when it has been kept afloat since 1982
with secret financing from Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who was unmasked in a
1978 congressional investigation as a covert agent of the South Korean
government trying to penetrate U.S. media and politics.
[For more on Moon’s espionage role – and his ties
to the Bush family – see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
But the right-wing campaign to continue denigrating
Joe Wilson carries another troubling message: that some Washington
conservatives care less about genuine national security than they do
about protecting their friends and maintaining their political