Time to Apologize to Plame/Wilson
October 31, 2007
During the scandal known as “Plame-gate,” it became an article of faith in many Washington power centers that CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson wasn’t “covert” and thus there was no “underlying crime” when the Bush administration intentionally blew her cover.
This view was pushed not only by right-wing acolytes of George W. Bush but by leading media outlets, such as the Washington Post editorial page, which championed an argument from Republican lawyer Victoria Toensing that the CIA-headquarters-based Plame wasn’t covered by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.
In statements on TV, in the Post’s Outlook section and before a congressional committee, Toensing argued that the law defined “covert” CIA officers who got legal protection as those who “resided” or were “stationed” abroad in the previous five years.
Since Plame, the mother of young twins, had been assigned to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in recent years, Toensing argued that Plame didn’t qualify under the law and thus wasn’t “covert.”
However, a reading of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and new information revealed in Plame’s memoir, Fair Game, show just how wrong Toensing, the Post’s editors and many other Washington pundits have been.
The law’s relevant clause doesn’t use the words “resided” or “stationed.” The law states that the identities of classified U.S. intelligence officers are protected if they have “served within the last five years outside the United States.”
An intelligence officer (or a Special Forces soldier) clearly can “serve” abroad in dangerous situations without being “stationed” or “residing” abroad. Toensing, who promoted herself as an author of the 1982 statute, surely knew the law’s actual wording on this point but instead substituted other words to alter the law’s meaning.
In Fair Game, the CIA censors blacked out many of Plame’s career details, but enough was left in to show that Plame traveled abroad in the five years prior to the Bush administration blowing her cover in summer 2003.
At that time, the White House was mounting a campaign to discredit Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for criticizing the administration’s misuse of intelligence about Iraq’s alleged pursuit of uranium in Niger.
“As I worked with our small team on our sensitive operations, I traveled often and sometimes at a moment’s notice,” wrote Plame, who was assigned to a counter-proliferation office that monitored weapon development in the Middle East. “I traveled domestically and abroad using a variety of aliases, confident that my tradecraft skills and solid cover would keep me out of the worst trouble.” [p. 71]
More specifically, Plame wrote: “In the late summer of 2002, I went on a whirlwind tour of several Middle Eastern countries to collect intelligence on the presumed cache of Iraqi WMD.” [p. 114]
In other words, Plame “served” abroad in her covert capacity as a CIA officer and thus was covered by the 1982 law, a conclusion also shared by the CIA when it referred her exposure to the Justice Department for criminal investigation in summer 2003.
The CIA reaffirmed her "covert" status at a March 16, 2007, hearing of the House Oversight Committee. Chairman Henry Waxman, D-California, read a statement approved by CIA Director Michael Hayden describing Plame’s status at the CIA as “covert,” “undercover” and “classified.”
“Ms. Wilson worked on the most sensitive and highly secretive matters handled by the CIA,” Waxman’s statement said, adding that her work dealt with “prevention of development and use of WMD against the United States.”
Appearing as a Republican witness at the same hearing, Toensing continued to employ her word substitutions to attack the CIA statement. Toensing was asked about her bald assertion that “Plame was not covert.”
“Not under the law,” Toensing responded. “I’m giving you the legal interpretation under the law and I helped draft the law. The person is supposed to reside outside the United States.”
But that’s not what the law says regarding CIA officers. It says “served” abroad, not “resided” abroad.
When asked whether she had spoken to the CIA or Plame about Plame’s covert status, Toensing said, “I didn’t talk to Ms. Plame or the CIA. I can just tell you what’s required under the law. They can call anybody anything they want to do in the halls” of the CIA.
So, Toensing had no idea about the facts of the matter, nor did she know how often Plame had traveled abroad in the five years before her exposure. Still, the opinion circles of Washington treated Toensing as a respected legal expert on the law.
On Feb. 18, 2007, as a federal jury was about to start deliberating perjury and obstruction of justice charges against White House aide I. Lewis Libby for his role in the “Plame-gate” affair, the Washington Post’s Outlook section gave Toensing front-page space to issue what she called “indictments” of Wilson, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and others who helped expose the White House hand behind the Plame leak.
To illustrate Toensing’s article, the Post’s editors even ordered up fabricated “mug shots” of Wilson, Fitzgerald and others.
In the article, Toensing wrote that “Plame was not covert. She worked at CIA headquarters and had not been stationed abroad within five years of the date” of the administration’s leak of her identity in a July 14, 2003, column by Robert Novak. (Again, note the use of “stationed” rather than the law’s actual language, “served.”)
Even ignoring the word substitutions, Toensing’s claim was legalistic at best since it obscured the larger point that Plame was working undercover in a classified CIA position and was running agents abroad whose safety would be put at risk by an unauthorized disclosure of Plame’s identity.
Yet, the strange parlor game of excusing the Bush administration for its retaliatory leak of Plame’s identity continued.
In a March 7, 2007, editorial, after Libby was convicted of perjury and obstructing justice, Washington Post editors reserved their harshest words for Wilson, declaring that the former ambassador “will be remembered as a blowhard” and a liar for claiming that the White House had sought retribution for his public criticism of Bush's Niger claims.
“The [Libby] trial has provided convincing evidence that there was no conspiracy to punish Mr. Wilson by leaking Ms. Plame’s identity – and no evidence that she was, in fact, covert,” the Post editorial stated.
But everything in the Post attack on Wilson was either a gross distortion or a lie. Wilson was correct when he alleged that the White House was punishing him for his Iraq War criticism. Indeed, the Washington Post’s own reporters had described this reality in the news pages.
On Sept. 28, 2003, a Post news article reported that a White House official disclosed that the administration had informed at least six reporters about Plame’s identity and did so “purely and simply out of revenge” against Wilson.
Special prosecutor Fitzgerald made the same point in a court filing in the Libby case, stating that the investigation had uncovered a “concerted” effort by the White House to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” Wilson because of his criticism of the administration. [Washington Post, April 9, 2006]
As for the March 7, 2007, editorial’s statement about Plame not being “covert,” the Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt apparently was still hanging his hat on Victoria Toensing’s erroneous definition of a “covert” officer under the identities law.
Regarding the supposed lack of evidence at the Libby trial about Plame’s covert status, the Post editorial left out the context: Libby’s defense attorneys argued against admission of that evidence because it would prejudice the jury and the judge ruled Plame’s covert status to be largely irrelevant to a case narrowly constructed about Libby’s lying.
But the Post’s editorial was part of a long pattern of Iraq War deceptions pushed by Hiatt and his editorial team. They let their neoconservative ideology – and their support for the Iraq War – blind them to facts, reason and fairness. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Shame on the Post’s Editorial Page,” “Smearing Joe Wilson Again” and “Shame of the WPost, Again.”]
Plame’s memoir, Fair Game, is notable in another way. It describes the personal pain of an American family caught up in the duplicitous power games of Washington, where influential people – from the White House to the Post’s editorial offices – can hammer any set of facts into a weapon to attack someone who gets in the way.
“Plame-gate” was a classic story of how arrogant leaders destroy a messenger who speaks truth to power, except this one had the extraordinary collateral damage of wrecking a U.S. national security program.
What happened was this:
In early 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney asked about a dubious report that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium from the African nation of Niger; a CIA officer working in a counter-proliferation office with Plame suggested that her husband, a former diplomat who had served in both Iraq and Africa might help check out the report.
At the urging of her boss, Plame sounded out her husband who met with Plame’s superiors and agreed to take the unpaid assignment; Wilson traveled to Niger and – like others who checked out the report – concluded that it was almost certainly false; on his return, Wilson relayed his findings to CIA debriefers along with an anecdotal comment from one former Nigerien official who had feared that one Iraqi delegation might want uranium, though it turned out not to be the case.
Nevertheless, while grasping at intelligence straws to justify invading Iraq, President Bush cited the Niger/yellowcake suspicions during his 2003 State of the Union address; the invasion went ahead in March 2003 but U.S. forces didn’t find any nuclear program or other WMD evidence; in summer 2003, Wilson went public with details about his Niger trip and challenged the administration’s misuse of WMD intelligence.
At that point, the Bush administration unleashed the full force of its propaganda machinery to disparage Wilson. The chosen attack line was to portray his trip as a boondoggle arranged by his wife, but that strategy required divulging that Plame was a CIA officer.
Nevertheless, administration insiders – including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; his friend and White House political adviser Karl Rove; Cheney’s chief of staff Libby; and press secretary Ari Fleischer – did just that, alerting reporters to the Plame angle.
Eight days after Wilson went public about his Niger trip, right-wing columnist Robert Novak attacked the ex-ambassador’s credibility by portraying the trip as a junket arranged by his CIA wife. Plame’s identity was exposed, most notably when the Post ran Novak's column on its op-ed page.
At that point, upon realizing the harm that was being done to Plame’s network of foreign agents, honorable people might have pulled back and tried to limit the damage. But that would have required Bush, Cheney and their underlings to admit complicity in a dirty operation. Instead, they chose to cover up their roles and divert attention by further attacking the Plame-Wilson family.
When the CIA sought a criminal investigation into the leaking of Plame’s identity in late summer 2003, the stakes rose higher for the White House.
For his part, Bush pretended to want a full investigation, declaring in September 2003 that he was determined to get to the bottom of who blew Plame’s cover. In reality, however, the White House never undertook even an administrative review to assess responsibility for the leak.
James Knodell, White House security office director, later told Congress that no internal security investigation was performed; no security clearances were suspended or revoked; no punishment of any kind was meted out even when Rove later acknowledged that he had helped reveal Plame’s classified identity.
Beyond hiding the White House role in the leak, the cover-up strategy shoveled more dirt onto Wilson.
Congressional Republicans, the right-wing news media and many mainstream journalists cherry-picked pieces of the story (like the anecdote about the suspected Iraqi desire for yellowcake) to make Wilson out to be a liar. In late 2005, Plame quit the CIA.
Still, Washington Post editor Hiatt and his powerful editorial page made trashing Wilson and mocking the seriousness of Plame’s exposure almost a regular feature, often recycling White House talking points.
In effect, the Washington culture created a permissive environment for Bush to complete the “Plame-gate” cover-up on July 2, 2007, by commuting Libby’s 30-month prison sentence. That ensured that Libby would be spared jail time and have no incentive to tell the full truth. [See Consortiumnews.com “The Libby Cover-up Completed.”]
Indeed, thanks to the Washington Post and other news outlets, the harshest penalties may have fallen on Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, whose careers were shattered first by the leaking of Plame’s identity and then by the incessant assaults on Wilson’s credibility.
After reading Fair Game, one is left with the sickening realization that Bush’s Washington has become a mean and mendacious place so lacking in honor that the city’s preeminent politicians and pundits don’t see any need to apologize to the Wilson family for all the harm that was done.
In a decent world, political leaders and journalists, especially, would praise Joe Wilson for his patriotism – both for undertaking the CIA mission and for blowing the whistle on the President’s abuse of intelligence to lead the nation to war.
But Washington is not that kind of place. Instead it is a city where having power – whether inside the White House or in the Post’s editorial offices – means never having to say you’re sorry.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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