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?

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.

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.

******

Leak to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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