The Plame Game
Will the leak of a CIA agent's name be the next big political scandal?
The seed usually lies dormant for a brief interval after being planted in a column or news story. If planted in the midsummer heat when journalists and politicians are busy with their vacations, it may take weeks or even months for the tender tendrils to germinate in the back pages of daily papers, in political magazines, opinion columns, and (nowadays, at least) on the Internet before sprouting in the full green of Page One.
This classic pattern applies to the most recent Washington scandal, which revolves around the identification of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative in a July 14, 2003, Robert Novak column. (Wilson, you remember, traveled to Niger in 2002 to investigate claims that the Iraqis were shopping for uranium. He concluded that they had not purchased the goods and described his inquiry in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed.) On Friday, Sept. 26, MSNBC.com and NBC commenced a press stampede of sorts with their exclusive report that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that two government officials had broken federal laws by leaking information to Novak about Wilson's wife, namely that she worked undercover for the CIA.
When Sunday's Washington Post gave Page One, above-the-fold treatment to the Novak-Wilson-Plame triangle, it bestowed official Washington scandal status upon the story, sending the rest of the press corps to the blogosphere and Nexis to catch up with what had been a slow-moving story. Today, TV producers are frantically booking reporters who've covered the story to come on their shows and bring the hosts and viewers up to speed.
The basic outlines of the Wilson-Novak-Plame story have not changed since Novak wrote his column and Nation Washington Editor David Corn noted in an outraged July 16 column that the leakers might have broken the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. Besides the fact that the CIA's request to the Justice Department for an investigation confirms the insinuation that Plame was an undercover agent until Novak and the leakers blew her cover, what we've now learned is the number of journalists the two administration leakers tried the Wilson-Plame story out on before striking hot with Novak (six). (Full disclosure: David Corn is a friend.)
How do we know that? An unnamed source—"a senior administration official"—told the Post so, adding that he "would not name the leakers for the record and would not name the journalists." In other words, a White House leaker is leaking to the Washington Post about Novak's White House leakers, but the leaker to the Post draws short of dribbling out the identities of who leaked to Novak and whom else they tried to leak to. The Post source does, however, pass stern judgment on Novak's leakers, saying the leaks were "wrong and a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson's credibility."
The news stories have Democrats howling perfidy about the Wilson-Novak-Plame leak, demanding prison time for the White House leakers as well as a public flogging of Bush. What did the president know, and when did he know it?! Ambassador Wilson continues to insist that the Bush administration leakers ratted out his wife—thereby destroying her career as an undercover operative—to intimidate anybody in the future who might disagree with the Bush administration.
But unless some startling news surfaces about the leakers, their identities, and their motives, I doubt this summer scandal will ripen into delectable fall fruit. To begin with, Novak composed his column in such a way as to deter prosecutors from swinging the Intelligence Identities Protection Act into action. Novak wrote:
Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report.
Note that Novak doesn't attribute his knowledge that Plame is an agency operative to anybody. He just asserts it. Only the second sentence about Wilson's wife's alleged role in getting him the Niger assignment identifies the sources as being from the administration. For all anybody knows, a little bird told Novak that Plame worked at the CIA. Speaking to Corn and others about his sources, Novak has amplified that it was government officials who informed him about Plame and her role, but he's not so specific that they'll automatically earn an Identities Protection Act rap. Also, we can assume that Novak and the other journalists tempted by the White House leakers won't give up their sources, so the Justice Department won't be able to smoke out the leakers unless the White House, pressured by Congress and the press, gives them some help.
Novak's White House sources aren't the only potentially prosecutable leakers. The identity of an undercover operative such as Plame would not automatically be something in circulation at the White House. Somebody at the CIA would have had to tell the White House that Plame was Wilson's wife and that she was undercover. Any aggressive Justice dragnet is as likely to collect CIA employees as it is White House officials.