A new Washington scandal?

Media criticism.
Sept. 29 2003 7:49 PM

The Plame Game

Will the leak of a CIA agent's name be the next big political scandal?

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Besides, most Justice Department investigations of leakers go nowhere, even when Justice knows their identities. At his May 6, 1997, confirmation hearing, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet complained that the CIA files "crimes reports with the attorney general every week about leaks, and we're never successful in litigating one. And I think, you know, if we could just find one, I don't want to prosecute anybody; I want to fire somebody. That will send the right signal to people."

Before the Justice Department rips the CIA and White House apart, they might want to consider how much damage Novak's leakers really did. Yes, it's against the law for a government official who has access to classified information to intentionally reveal the identity of a covert agent, punishable with a $50,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison. But according to the Sunday Post story by Mike Allen and Dana Priest, the CIA began "damage assessment" of the disclosure to Plame's foreign contacts after the Novak column ran and stated that no additional harm would come from more mentions of Plame's name. This would indicate that whatever damage caused by Plame's unmasking was quickly contained.

In the same Post piece, Novak asserts that the CIA urged him not to print Plame's name "for security reason[s]" but also said it was doubtful Plame would have another foreign assignment. The CIA and the military are very good at persuading mainstream journalists such as Novak to hold their fire when they're about to publish information that would damage an ongoing intelligence or military operation. But Novak tells the Post the CIA made only "a very weak request" not to name Plame. "If it was put on a stronger basis, I would have considered it," Novak said. As an experienced Washington journalist who frequently bumps up against intelligence sources, Novak surely knows how to read signals from the CIA. Had they wanted him to black out her name, they should have—and would have—told him to do so.

Who exactly is Valerie Plame? Corn writes that she "is known to friends as an energy analyst in a private firm," which is not as convincing as Corn writing that she is an energy analyst in a private firm. (It sounds to me as if "energy analyst in a private firm" is the polite cover all of her friends use, knowing that she works at the CIA. It could be that Plame's "secret" is no secret at all.) I find no mention of her on Nexis prior to the current scandal, and the only pre-scandal mention I found on the Web was Wilson's bio sheet on the Middle East Institute's Web site in which she is described as his wife, "Valerie Plame."

Can we really imagine that Wilson's wife used her name, Valerie Plame, to go undercover for the CIA? Children and dogs have Web pages that identify their interests and accomplishments. You'd imagine that an "energy analyst at a private firm" would have left some sort of HTML trail for Google to pick up. Unless reporters and investigators ferret out any new information, the Justice Department is not likely to find that any lasting harm was done to national security. Instead of prosecuting, Tenet might have his druthers this time and fire whoever leaked the information from the CIA and recommend the president do the same at the White House.

Given that the White House knows who the leakers are, I would surmise that the administration will stanch the damage—and still the scandal—by strongly encouraging the leakers to offer themselves up for sacrifice out of duty to President Bush. If I were Bush, I'd avoid anything that could be construed as a cover-up and start rehearsing my address to the nation about how a tiny precancerous lesion has been removed from the face of the presidency.

Leaving aside for a moment the questionable wisdom of keeping all covert agent identities secret, it's worth remembering the origin of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act: It was passed to stop CIA turncoat Philip Agee and his comrades from naming the names of CIA operatives around the world. The law mostly focuses on government officials: Journalists can't be prosecuted unless they repeatedly and deliberately unmask covert agents, and, of course, the law only applies to U.S. publications. Once the act passed, fringe magazines such as the Covert Action Information Bulletin stopped naming names, and now we only hear mention of the act when a politically embarrassing leak surfaces in the press or, as in the case of the Novak-Wilson-Plame triangle, a politically motivated leak finds its way into print. I do not know of a single successful prosecution under the act.

The hidden good news in the Wilson-Novak-Plame melodrama is that it disproves a thesis that jaundiced readers, myself included, have about the weakness Washington reporters have for anonymous sources bearing scoops. Any of the six journalists who were offered the Plame story and declined to run with it could have gotten some sort of career-enhancing bump out of it. That they ignored the calculated leak, and the story ended up with an opinion journalist who used it to make his political point, indicates a level of discipline I didn't know existed in the press corps.

The hidden bad news is that none of them reported that the Plame information was being leaked by sources who wished to embarrass her and Wilson—which they could have legitimately done without burning their sources by name. In other words, they all protected the White House from its blunder.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.